Review: What Shadows - Hannan’s play is a chilling must see

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ROLLING thunder rumbles and cracks at the opening of What Shadows at the Royal Lyceum. A storm is approaching. A storm called Enoch Powell.

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Royal Lyceum, Grindlay Street

Little is black and white in Chris Hannan’s play, which receives its Scottish premiere at the Lyceum, this month.

A study of cultural identity, of friendship, of aspiration and of self-discovery, it takes the Conservative MP’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech as its focus, spinning drama from its impact, an impact that has rippled down the decades, fuelling racism, violence and hatred ever since.

Rose Cruickshank is a lecturer and historian. A girl when Powell delivered his anti-immigration speech, she determines to confront him, and so embarks on a journey that forces her, and us, to face some uncomfortable truths.

Directed with pace and a generous humanity by Roxana Silbert, Hannan’s storytelling is falsely enticing and unapologetically thought-provoking. His words are always considered, whether eliciting laughter or chilling to the bone with a recreation of the 1968 speech.

Amelia Donkor, as the protagonist Rose, is assured, yet conflicted, and quite simply completely compelling.

Ian McDiarmid’s Powell is a contradiction of a man. Affable on the surface, rage simmers never far beneath the placid mask.

Afflicted, in Act Two, by the onset of Parkinson’s Disease, he transforms into a frail old-man, stripped of his identity. It’s a powerful performance from the 73-year-old.

Both are ably supported by a cast of a calibre seldom seen in the Capital, including Joanne Pearce as Pamela, Powell’s wife and greatest enabler, Nicholas Le Prevost, his journalist friend and confident, and Paula Wilcox.

Her starring role in Man About the House may be a long time ago now, but Wilcox still has a jaunt in her step and twinkle in her eye.

With Ameet Chana’s endearing Sultan, she shares both comic and searingly moving moments.

The final confrontation between Rose and Powell when it comes is explosive. The MP’s incandescent anger played with frightening intensity by McDiarmid.

Racism. Toleration. Aspiration. The repercussions of Powell’s Birmingham speech remain today, highlighted by the Brexit process, making this an important and relevant piece of theatre.

Few productions of this stature reach Edinburgh. Indulge in it while you can.

Run ends 23 September