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Power of Sail at the Menier Chocolate Factory review: an enjoyable and provoking cancel culture thriller

Julian Ovenden and Tanya Franks in Power of Sail (Manuel Harlan)
Julian Ovenden and Tanya Franks in Power of Sail (Manuel Harlan)

Paul Grellong’s talky, twisty American campus thriller about moral compromise and the limits of free speech gets a luxuriously cast and designed British premiere from Dominic Dromgoole here. It’s an enjoyable and provoking watch, though the number of issues Grellong crams into 100 minutes means it’s necessarily schematic.

Julian Ovenden’s Prof Charles Nichols, a smugly self-declared “free speech absolutist”, has invited white supremacist Benjamin Carver to speak at a private Boston college. Tanya Franks and Giles Terera are the Jewish principal and black alumnus – now a telegenic academic – trying to dissuade him.

Two of Nichols’s favoured grad students (Michael Benz and Katie Bernstein) discuss safe spaces, snowflakery and white privilege with him.

Like the online conspiracy theories that flash onto the walls of Paul Farnsworth’s endlessly unfolding and reforming set, the story metastasizes to encompass the culture war topic of supposed DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) policies in academia and media, the bonkers “white genocide” theory, and much else besides.

Almost every character divulges a shameful secret or hidden motivation, and what starts as a passionate intellectual argument spirals into death and disgrace.

Giles Terera and Michael Benz in Power of Sail (Manuel Harlan)
Giles Terera and Michael Benz in Power of Sail (Manuel Harlan)

The Power of Sail belongs to the school of American writing where characters bat complex ideas back and forth in perfectly formed, snappy exchanges.

Grellong is an established name in US theatre and television: his words are polished and the play’s chronology switches smoothly back and forwards to furnish a new revelation in each scene.

The campus setting and charged language reminded me somewhat of David Mamet’s Oleanna.

Not everything lands, though. The part of mixed-heritage FBI agent Quinn (Georgia Landers) is severely underwritten. Ditto the joke-telling barman (Paul Rider) who shares Charles’s passion for books, sailing, and model ships.

The show’s title, incidentally, is a reference to a nautical law stating motor vessels must give way to sailboats, the significance of which utterly eluded me.

Dromgoole’s direction is brisk and economic. Ovenden nicely captures the weakness beneath Nichols’s arrogance, though he feels young for the part (Bryan Cranston, 20 years his senior, played it in Los Angeles).

Terera and Benz share a terrifically tense, if improbably fast-escalating, confrontation. The angry head-to-head between Franks’s Principal Katz and Bernstein’s Maggie, who is also Jewish, is heavy handed.

There are no pure heroes here and Grellong has no interest in easy answers. Carver, a KKK princeling and Holocaust denier, remains offstage while the other characters tie themselves in moral knots. The rollercoaster of “aha” moments gradually shows diminishing returns.

And after all the hectic debate the ending is surprisingly downbeat and sudden. But the issues Grellong raises aren’t going away, and you leave the auditorium with your head buzzing.

Menier Chocolate Factory, to May 12; buy tickets here