Reviews Roundup: Power of Sail 3.1★

Menier Chocolate Factory

Julian Ovenden and Giles Terera in Power of Sail. Photo: Manuel Harlan

In Paul Grellong’s play, directed by Dominic Dromgoole, a Harvard professor invites a racist, holocaust denier to a symposium. Various people are up in arms, freedom of speech is evoked, but as the would-be thriller travels back in time, it reveals there is more to various protagonists’ motives than their stated positions. There may have been an almighty row on stage, but in the stalls the critics showed a rare moment of unity (until a late review appeared). David Mamet is mentioned frequently in the reviews, both for content (remember Oleanna) and language, but the critics found Power of Sail fell short of greatness because there were too many twists to the plot. By the way, the title refers to the rule that says engine-driven ships must give way to sail boats. None of the critics came up with a satisfactory explanation of its relevance to the story.

[Links to full reviews are included but a number are behind paywalls and therefore may not be accessible]

The Guardian’s Arifa Akbar (3★) found much of interest:  ‘Paul Grellong’s intelligent if schematic play incorporates themes of cancel culture, Nazi legacies and the intersection between freedom of expression and hate speech.’ ‘it grips with its adrenalised dialogue,’ she said. ‘But,’ she said, ‘this is coupled with a briskness in plot – one twist after another – that pushes it forward at a rate of knots, while almost all of the characters turn out to be appalling in ways that feel too flat.’ Nick Curtis in The Standard (3★) agreed, even using the same adjective: ‘It’s an enjoyable and provoking watch, though the number of issues Grellong crams into 100 minutes means it’s necessarily schematic.’ Like others, he found ‘The rollercoaster of “aha” moments gradually shows diminishing returns.’

Sarah Crompton at Whats On Stage (3★) was on the same track. She said it ‘takes a fascinating subject and then via various unlikely plot twists, so muddies the water that its impact is blunted.’ Like the others, she found it superficial: ‘It ends up skating along the surface of a hugely important debate rather than digging deep.’ Dominic Cavendish in the Telegraph (3★) was yet another who felt ‘the subject-matter cries out for more time to unpack.’ He clearly thought this was a shame because it was ‘a timely look at freedom of speech and the perils of taking sides at university, smartly directed, as ever, by Dominic Dromgoole.’ He found space to praise the lead actor Julian Ovenden, describing him as ‘convincingly acerbic’.

Clive Davis  in The Times (3★) appears to be more positive: ‘Not content with setting up a fast-paced debate about the limits of academic freedom, the American playwright catches us off balance with a shifting chronological structure which, in the second half, continually asks us to reassess the motivations of his main characters.’ But his positivity ran aground on the same rocks observed by the other reviewers: ‘It’s just a pity that Grellong tries to rush through many plot twists, some of them less than plausible.’ Did Patrick Marmion in the Mail (3★) take a different view? No: ‘Grellong also loses the dramatic focus of his would-be thriller by digressing.’

Mica Blackwell at Broadway World (3★) joined the procession: ‘Grellong’s snappy dialogue and Dominic Dromgoole’s direction keep the play punchy, but it feels too short to fully discuss the topics with the true nuance they deserve.’ ‘Maybe those conversations will be better discussed after watching the show,’ she added hopefully. Like the other critics, she praised the look of the show: ‘Paul Farnsworth’s sleek set captures the prestige of an Ivy League campus.’

But the critics’ unity was shattered when, a little after the others, Caroline McGinn’s review appeared at Time Out (4★) and told us why it was ‘Brisk, well-made and punchy’. ‘It has a genuinely exciting plot and a full-spectrum moral awareness of the murky motives and pitiless passions of identity politics…both together are an absolute treat.’ The ‘terrific’ play is, she said, ‘wisely and craftily directed by…Dominic Dromgoole.’

Power of Sail can be seen at The Menier Chocolate Factory until 12 May 2024. Buy tickets directly from menierchocolatefactory.com

Average critic rating (out of 5) 3.1★

Value rating  60 (Value rating is the Average Critic Rating divided by the typical ticket price. In theory, this means the higher the score the better value but, because of price variations, a West End show could be excellent value if it scores above 30 while an off-West End show may need to score above 60. This rating is based on opening night prices- theatres may raise or lower prices during the run.)

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