Whitewash review – mother and son on the frontline of racial tension

Soho theatre, London
A young man plans to privatise the estate where he grew up in Gabriel Bisset-Smith’s quick-witted drama about identity and belonging

Mary is mixed-race; her son Lysander is snowy white-skinned. In 1989, as racial tensions in north London loom, Mary is often mistaken for Lysander’s nanny. Sometimes there are suspicions that she is his kidnapper.

Writer Gabriel Bisset-Smith plays Lysander opposite Rebekah Murrell as Mary. The pair narrate the story and assume several roles in different time frames, often with glinting mischief as genders are switched and accents assumed.

Whitewash shows signs of being a quick-witted drama about race, identity and belonging, playfully told through this mother-son dynamic. But another plot line emerges that could be the seed of a second play: the council estate where Lysander grew up is being privatised, its older residents displaced. Lysander works for the company planning the revamp and is caught between social activism and his need to knuckle down and become a respectable father-to-be. The spectre of Grenfell is also conjured and there are references to “the system that let Grenfell happen”.

The privatisation plot line has its own emerging tensions but does not have the space to come alive in this 70-minute play and feels squeezed by the mother-son story. Time is chopped up and we move backwards and forwards to hear Mary and Lysander’s parallel stories. When this works, it is fantastically effective, particularly in a scene that captures two warehouse parties in Peckham, south London, and the past segues into the present and back again. It draws a sharply observed picture of urban gentrification and contains sparkling social satire. A few other scenes work nearly as well but, more often than not, the switches between times and characters feel confusing, despite the virtuosity of both actors.

Bisset-Smith, a Bafta-nominated writer and comedian, has undoubted talent and the satire here contains great promise. The time and place are evoked with chart hits and images of street scenes in King’s Cross, London, projected on to the walls on either side of Jemima Robinson’s traverse stage. In its best moments, it looks like a Zadie Smith novel come to life.

• At Soho theatre, London, until 27 July


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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