Douglas Maxwell's audacious family drama becomes tangled in its own provocations
At the start, Douglas Maxwell’s ‘The Whip Hand’ seems like slightly over-egged sitcom. By the end it’s gone into a full Edward Albee-style domestic meltdown, as the characters clutch desperately for purchase in the molten wreckage of their lives.
How exactly they got here is… confusing.
Witty, foul-mouthed, hyper-confident, hyper-sexual Arlene (Louise Ludgate, very entertaining) is married to slick, annoying metrosexual Lorenzo (Richard Conlon). Her young, bright daughter Molly (Joanne Thomson) also lives with them. And with them tonight is Molly’s hapless dad, Dougie (Jonathan Watson), who has moved back in with his mum, but has come over to his ex-wife’s for his fiftieth birthday to be patronised by the well-meaning Lorenzo. And also in tow is his nephew Aaron (Michael Abubakar).
But Dougie has an announcement to make: an organisation has been in touch to say that he’s the last living descendent of a notorious Scottish slave trader, and would he like to pay some reparations? Dougie has decided that he would, and having no money himself, has come to demand access to the £25,000 savings account that was to pay for Molly’s first year of university. Arlene is unhappy, to say the least.
If that was ‘it’ I suspect ‘The Whip Hand’ might work pretty well. Maxwell’s caricatures of the smug Scottish bourgeoise are a bit broad, but Tessa Walker’s production ramps up the drama incrementally, culminating in a heartfelt, horrifying speech about slaves being deported through the Door of No Return and how modern Scotland was founded on the blood of Africans. What at one point looks like a crass plot device becomes very serious, an excoriation of us all for forgetting how we arrived at our privileged present.
But then it zaps completely off the chart into a series of machiavellian twists and turns that are just kind of baffling. Characters who were funny at the start are scheming monsters by the end. Maxwell tries so hard to problematise literally everything that he tears down the architecture of his own play and the actual issue of reparations gets slightly left in the dust. ‘The Whip Hand’ has no emotional coherency, but it does have quite a lot of audacity, and if it doesn’t exactly work, it’s certainly a lot ballsier than the opening scenes suggest.