Review: Whitewash, Soho Theatre

Written by Gabriel Bisset-Smith, Whitewash builds itself brick by brick into a sturdy, generation-bearing wall. Spanning 30 years and moving us between London and Jamaica, the play draws a vivid picture of the relationship between race and class, the confrontation of where you were raised and where you choose to belong.

Nobody believes Mary (Rebekah Murrell) and Lysander (Bisset-Smith) are related. She is a mixed-race woman working hard to make it as a painter in London; Lysander is her very white son with an over-pronounced British accent. 

When Lysander proposes the housing estate Mary brought him up in for redevelopment, he thinks he can make a difference, but is he really trying to paint over the place and people he once called home?

Bisset-Smith’s script skilfully plays with juxtaposition, starting the play with a white policeman approaching Mary and Lysander and ending it with a white policeman walking up to Lysander and his daughter. The situations are the same, but the emotional charge of the scenes vastly different.

Whitewash has a lot to say, not only through its words but also through its visual elements. Designer Jemima Robinson’s set is in itself whitewashed. The white floor is bordered left and right by white brick walls which become the backdrop for Daniel Denton’s videos, pictures of 1980’s Camden merging into modern day Peckham.

Jenny Gordon’s original artworks immortalise Mary’s growth, from hanging onto the past to celebrating her and her son’s differences and finally belonging.

Charlotte Bennett’s direction is filled with pure joy and intuition, encouraging Murrell and Bisset-Smith to take full ownership of the stage. Setting the stage in traverse transforms the performance space into a dancefloor or a street, us, the audience, onlookers and passers-by.

Murrell and Bisset-Smith’s chemistry is palpable, moving their characters in and out of each other’s timelines during nights of drug-fuelled dancing, the dawn of a young family, whilst the city’s canvas perpetually changes around them. 

Throughout, however, the play feels rushed. The actors stumble over words as if racing to cover a long distance in a short amount of time. Although Mary and Lysander’s emotional responses are tightly woven into the play, the pace pushes us out of them before their impact is fully felt. It makes the story almost too crisp. A little roughing up and time to let us come up for air would leave the audience with moments a lot less easy to overlook.
Whitewash is a play of current urgency, showing us how where we come from is something we can confront and decide to fight for, or simply walk away from.

Whitewash is playing the Soho Theatre until 27 July. For more information and tickets, see the Soho Theatre website.