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Power of Sail (Menier Chocolate Factory)

(seen at the afternoon performance on 7th April 2024)

This is author Paul Grellong’s third play, apparently salvaged from the dust pile at the insistence of his original producer.

A timely tale, fifth generation Harvard tenured professor Charles Nichols (Julian Ovenden) has booked a far-right speaker to counterbalance the far-left and centrist speakers at his annual history symposium.

The student body heard of the plan and are protesting outside his office. His Dean and old friend, Jewish Amy Katz (Tanya Franks) is mildly appalled. Old friend Baxer Forrest (Giles Terera) is shocked. Nobody much cares what Nichols’s doctorate students Maggie Rosen (Kati Bernstein) and Lucas Poole (Michael Benz) think.

When Nicols is invited to a pre-symposium meeting at a Far-Right compound in the woods, Poole accompanies him. There, events take a turn. To say more is a spoiler, but it creates a structure for the play which allows us to re-visit the time period leading up to it and reveal plenty about motives and machinations of academia as well as American politics in 2019.

It is a very confident piece of writing. The opening scene in particular has a realism which allows both Ovenden and Franks to circle each other, curling in for friendship, pulling away as the rift in power and perspective deepens.

From there, Grellong appears to have trimmed his play to the bone marrow. Every other character is not just subsidiary but has a fascinating story to tell which we never get to excavate as we should.

At an hour and a half for six scenes, we have to wonder whether two full acts would have done justice to both the ideas Grellong is exploring and the actors he too briefly allows to deliver fine work.

Terera’s Forrest suffers most. A perfect late scene with Benz hardly compensates for an under-developed back-story from both; revelations and questions sufficient for at least two more sequences vanish.

Likewise, Franks and Bernstein detonate hefty charges in their own impressive duologue, the potential disappearing, leaving us wanting more.

With Georgia Landers as Quinn Harris, clear-thinking F.B.I. investigator and Paul Rider delivering hoary barman jokes as Frank Sullivan, Dominic Dromgoole’s cast is flawless even as we receive what could have been a satisfying 120 minutes on stage or the basis of a hit Netflix box set – returning to the writer’s TV scripting background. 

As it is, the concept is as original as Paul Farnsworth’s impressively versatile set - and as flawed as the lengthy scene-changes the latter requires. Not assisted by clever but unreadable video designs (Leo Flint), there is a feeling of incompleteness.

More than sound enough to hold our attention for the entire time, and with an intelligent ending, there are so many unexplored strands that the metaphor at the heart of the piece – power must always give way to sail / history should be respected and given prevalence in the headlong rush for new ideas – is swamped.

While interesting, one cannot help but wonder how this play would have read if written by Lynn Nottage, Annie Baker or even British David Hare. Further revision would be welcome, if Grellong has the courage to cast off again. 

If not, the rigging is set, but not quite trimmed sufficiently is the correct direction for the momentum this schooner could achieve.

3 stars.


Photo credit: Manuel Harlan. Used by permission of Encore Tickets.

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