There’s an intriguing cyclical path that Douglas Maxwell’s play The Whip Hand takes: it starts off local, in a family sitting room, in a house with a ‘nice’ garden, as Dougie gathers his mish-mash, fractured-then-pieced-back-together family to celebrate his birthday.
The play then starts to roam widely, away from Scotland and across generations, as Dougie reveals his plan to answer for the crimes of one of his historical ancestors in modern-day Scotland. The plan received (to put it very mildly) a mixed reception. Maxwell then narrows his focus back to the family to explore the fallout of Dougie’s words in a finale that feels (and looks) like a hand grenade has gone off on stage.
Maxwell’s piece feels initially like a comedy of manners – new husband Lorenzo’s choice of craft beer rubbing up hard against Dougie’s polite insistence for a Tennent’s – but as the play progresses it morphs into a fairly hard-hitting study of the nature of inheritance and responsibility.
The strength of Maxwell’s writing is in its construction: in a piece like this it would be easy to write each character as a mouthpiece for a particular viewpoint, but The Whip Hand feels built around the family first. Each character’s argument feels impassioned, reasoned and justified, and so carries the audience along with it. My own opinion on where Dougie’s obligations lay shifted several times during the show.
The ensemble cast are universally very strong, but special mention goes to ex-wife Arlene (a rowdy Louise Ludgate) and her familiar banter about Dougie’s shortcomings turning totally caustic as anger and gin force her to dig deeper into the kind of man Dougie is. Jonathan Watson’s Dougie is similarly excellent: watching him pivot from docile, cowed ex-husband to a predator sensing his moment to reclaim the traditional masculine role he feels he is owed is a joy.
Words: Tom Birch
The Whip Hand, Traverse Theatre, Aug 3-27, times vary