Power of Sail, Menier Chocolate Factory, 2024
Photo: Manuel Harlan
  • Theatre, Drama
  • Recommended


Power of Sail

4 out of 5 stars

Deliciously knotty morality thriller about a campus scandal at an American university


Time Out says

This 2019 drama about a Harvard professor who gets cancelled after he platforms a racist is never the play you think it’s going to be, and it’s all the better for it.

Some LA critics were a little snooty about Paul Grellong’s play when it premiered there with Bryan Cranston starring. They’re wrong, it’s terrific. It has a genuinely exciting plot and a full-spectrum moral awareness of the murky motives and pitiless passions of identity politics; either of these qualities are a rare delight in new writing, and both together are an absolute treat. The weird and unmemorable title is the only piece of writerly fat in this lean and thrilling drama which peels the onion in six tense scenes, starting with a shocking and tragic event and then flipping back through the previous day’s events to reveal not so much whodunnit – because all are guilty – but when, how, and above all why.

The professor who jump-starts the scandal, Charles Nichols, is not without good qualities: Julian Ovenden suffuses him with charm and kindness to leaven the flaws that will bring him down, mainly vanity and middle-aged white guy heebie-jeebies about his dwindling relevance. What’s horribly enjoyable and illuminating is the way the plot remorselessly strips the layers of camouflage off not just Charles but the four colleagues whose backstories, personal and cultural, are the long fuses to this moral conflagration.

There’s Black TV star Baxter Forrest, played by the excellent Giles Terera, who conveys slick code-switching smoothness and internal righteous fury with equal brilliance and conviction. There are two Jewish women, beleaguered Dean Amy Katz (Tanya Franks) and Nichols’s younger mentee Maggie Rosen (Katie Bernstein). And finally Lucas Poole (Michael Benz), another mentee, who diffidently complains that it’s hard for a ‘cis white guy’ to get a job in academia these days. 

I don’t want to give the game away because the reveals are so enjoyable. But everyone has an angle, everyone has pressure points, everyone has a soul that’s a little grubby. There’s no cathartic climax, just lingering sorrow. A tragedy has occurred and you see its cause is not just one man’s hubris, but a nest of nasty little impulses: the nagging professional envy, the over-reaching cyber-revenge, the venal deal that went too far. 

Recent headline events at Harvard were ignited by similarly entangled faultlines of dog whistle politics and trigger points around anti-Semitism, freedom of speech, and race. They make it feel very relevant. But it’s not dependent on real-world context. On the night I saw it, it played to an older, whiter audience who started out very happy to huff and puff audibly over ‘woke’ students. But these are a diversion, and the house was gripped by Grellong’s subtler critique of selfishness masquerading as principle. It is a morality play, not an ideology play; all our prejudices are bruised in the end.

I did want more nastiness and menace at the climax. But this is a well-judged, well-acted show. Paul Farnsworth’s set is ingenious and a bit metaphorical; the seemingly solid  hardwood desk and shelves of a Harvard study are wheeled away and replaced by transient nothing, and very quickly too. The whole is wisely and craftily directed by the former Globe artistic director Dominic Dromgoole, nothing auterish or egotistical, quite the opposite, in that he's done a lot of work so you don't have to. Brisk, well-made and punchy, it reminded me why a good off-West End drama is such an enjoyable night out.


£47.50-£55, Run 1hr 45min (no interval)
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