It’s nearly 50 years since maverick Conservative, Enoch Powell, Member of Parliament for Wolverhampton South West, delivered his infamous Rivers of Blood speech that warned of the consequences of mass immigration.
Prophetic, powerful and misunderstood, the controversial politician echoed the fears of his constituents who feared that a massive influx from abroad would threaten employment, school places and houses.
Fast forward to 2016 and it was David Cameron’s refusal to listen to his voters, and their fears about immigration, which lost him the Brexit campaign and, ultimately, his job as PM.
So Chris Hannan’s uncompromising play, What Shadows, which dissects Powell’s views on identity and immigration, couldn’t be more timely.
It originally premiered at Birmingham Rep, just four months after Cameron quit, and was hailed as one of the most provocative dramas of the decade.
What Shadows is just as incendiary on its transfer to London’s Park Theatre.
The production opened this week and sees Ian McDiarmid, one of this country’s finest character actors, give a masterclass in stagecraft, offering up a remarkable and unerringly accurate portrayal of Powell both as a young (-ish) firebrand and as an old man in the terrible grip of Parkinson’s disease.
What’s more, he raises goosebumps when he stands before the audience to deliver The Birmingham Speech, dubbed the Rivers of Blood speech by the press, arguably one of the most contentious and inflammatory pieces of rhetoric ever spoken.
Hannan’s play is complex but beautifully handled by director Roxana Silbert, who nimbly guides the narrative through different, key, time periods in the MP’s life and that of his protagonist, outspoken Oxford don Rose Cruickshank.
A video backcloth and minimal set allows the story to dip into different decades with ease. It is only in the second act that we see Enoch in the last months of his life, now white haired, battling to control tremors and fits, while still mentally acute.
His clash of egos and intellects with Cruickshank, who is struggling with her own identity and inherent racism, should be one-sided.
One of Oxford’s brightest academics aims for the jugular, verbally annihilating a man she has detested throughout her life, who stands for everything she despises.
But Hannan doesn’t judge – at all. In fact What Shadows presents both sides of the argument and will, no doubt, provoke hours of post-production debate among theatre-goers.
The drama questions not only Enoch Powell’s stand during that 1968 speech which caused race riots in some quarters, but also what it means to be both racist and English.
We hear Powell, time and again, say that his constituents wanted England returned to the English.
“They, who hope to govern England, have washed their hands of ordinary people,” he says.
“When I speak to my constituents about education, they speak about immigration; when I mention the economy, they talk about immigration; when I say hospitals, they say immigration.
“Have I not the duty as their representative to articulate the resentment they feel, the sense they have of being overlooked?”
He could have been talking about Cameron’s head-in-the-sand stance at the Brexit vote.
But what does it mean to be English?
As his best friend and fiercest critic, journalist Clem Jones (Nicholas Le Prevost always a great supporting actor), points out, England has been invaded and settled by immigrants since the Roman times. We’re as multi-cultural as they come.
And what about racism between Asians of different castes, blacks and Jews it asks? Every tribe, race and community has its own prejudices – as Rose Cruickshank found out while growing up in Wolverhampton where her own Jamaican, half-caste, mother discriminated again her daughter for being black.
It is a sensitive and emotive subject but one which deserves to be revisited.
Throughout the play Cruickshank (a fiery and combative Amelia Donkor) hunts for the root of her own unease with the aid of ex-professor, Sofia Nicol.
The pair return to her home city to wake up spirits of years past when blacks and Asians clashed and white families deserted whole neighbourhoods that were settled by immigrants.
Joanne Pearce skilfully swaps wigs and identities to play Powell’s twinset and pearls wife, Pamela, and the hugely intellectual and perceptive Nicol. It’s a great juggling act with Pearce delivering two top-notch performances.
Paula Wilcox also doubles up as Enoch’s greatest supporter, Clem’s Quaker wife, Marjorie Jones, and as bigoted landlady Grace Hughes. Two diverse parts but both showcasing the talent and versatility of this veteran stage and screen star.
In flashbacks we see Rose as a child, hiding in doorways while her mother, also played by Donkor, entertains neighbours, including Grace and immigrant newcomers Sultan Mahmood (Ameet Chana) and his ill-educated relative Saeed (Waleed Akhtar).
Scenes also play out the deteriorating relationship between the Powell’s and the Jones’ who almost come to blows because of Enoch’s watershed speech.
Like him or loath him, following his speech, delivered in a Birmingham hotel, Powell received almost 120,000, predominantly positive, letters and a Gallup poll showed that 74 per cent of those asked agreed with him.
What Shadows is a remarkable, tough-talking political play that will divide opinions and arouse emotions – which is exactly what you want from a first-class drama.
Running at Park Theatre until October 28.
What Shadows is a remarkable, tough-talking political play that will divide opinions and arouse emotions - which is exactly what you want from a first-class drama.