THE WHIP HAND at the Door, Birmingham Rep

New writing and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival have gone hand in hand for seventy years now, making it perfect for the initial run of Douglas Maxwell’s The Whip Hand. For many pieces, the Fringe is not only the start of a new piece, but also the end of it. Luckily this is not the case for Maxwell’s play. Less than two weeks after its initial run in Edinburgh, the cast are in the Rep, ready to bring the production to the people of Birmingham.

The play revolves around a family reunion and the presentation that Dougie (played by Jonathan Watson) has prepared for his fiftieth birthday. Through the presentation, he unearths the family’s dark past as he seeks to gain the support from his ex-wife Arlene (Louise Ludgate), her husband Lorenzo (Richard Conlon) and their children (Michael Abubakar and Joanne Thomson). But this seemingly simple premise develops more and more as the family come to terms with this new information and the proposal that Dougie has to make.

Reminiscent of a problem play, The Whip Hand touches on themes of power, responsibility and justice, to name a few. Maxwell’s writing is brilliant and balances beautifully moments of humour with moments of unrest and chaos, which keeps the action of the play varied, despite taking place over one scene. It may not be a ground-breaking piece, but it will make you comfortable and relaxed before repeatedly breaking your nose and leaving you to bleed when you least expect it.

Tessa Walker’s directorial experience shows here, as her direction suits the production perfectly. The cast is strong together which makes the situations and conversations feel naturalistic, even though the on-stage violence wasn’t as effective as it could be. The developed, distinct performances helped keep the characters human, with everyone’s flaws bubbling to the surface one by one.

Natasha Jenkins’s design conveys the grandeur of Lorenzo’s house well. It feels homely and fits the realism of the show. The attention to detail helped further this, in particular seeing the kitchen and cupboards behind doors that led off stage, rather than a cavernous black abyss that many shows opt for.

When brought together, each element of the production creates a believable yet disturbing tale that answers several questions within the play, while leaving many more societal dilemmas open for discussion. In a world where ethics are becoming an ever more pressing issue, perhaps plays such as this are more important than ever.   ★★★★☆    Jeremy Ulster     7th September 2017