Rebekah Murrell, Gabriel Bisset-Smith, Soho Theatre, Whitewash, theatre, comedy
Whitewash: spanning 30 years as mother and son, from Jamaica to London
Andy Polaris reviews Whitewash at the Soho Theatre, London

Whitewash opens with black mother Mary, a dual-heritage Irish Jamaican played by Rebekah Murrell, pulling her reluctant son down a street in Camden in the Eighties and attracting the attention of passers-by and a policeman. The reason, her son Lysander (Gabriel Bisset-Smith) is almost as white as Caspar and the recurring question posed is: Where is the child’s mother and  who is the woman attempting to budge this resistant child?

Mother and son lay out a candid and good-humoured narrative about their complicated relationship, framed around the wider discussion of race and identity in Britain over the generations going back to her absent father’s roots in Jamaica and Windrush.

We see a grown-up Lysander working in housing in present-day London amid the crisis shortage of affordable homes and  the domestic drama of what some have considered the economic cleansing of the working class. He is employed by a company that has plans to privatise the housing estate where he was raised and finds himself losing grasp of the situation when the plans keep shifting away from former tenants and community. We see Mary struggle to become a “commercially successful” artist, in the face of other people’s perceptions of her black experience which are depressingly familiar.

Rebekah Murrell, Gabriel Bisset-Smith, Soho Theatre, Whitewash, theatre, comedy
White son of mixed race mother in Whitewash: Rebekah Murrell and Gabriel Bisset-Smith as Mary and Lysander

The battle focuses on highly sought-after once-deprived areas, as housing associations negotiate with hungry developers strategic ways to profit from the changing fortunes of social housing stock and the land it occupies. Living on an estate in King’s Cross ripe for development since the Channel Tunnel, mother and son see their homes as collateral damage in a wider ambitious project where resistance although fiery is also futile. The rich and poor of the city are a fertile ground for conflict and a constant hanging cloud over some areas when improvements usually require the eviction of social tenants. The play moves between different time periods and brings us bang up to date with the tragedy of Grenfell and a concerned activist resident unsure of her future.

Into this landscape are woven the lives and culture of the extended family and the tensions of becoming a successful artist while struggling to keep a roof over your head and bringing up a child. Different characters and accents are skilfully played by the two leads, joshing, joking and clashing, injecting joy and humour. They take on a more introspective tone when focused on identity and fulfilment, again more acute for the less well heeled. Mary’s striking art (depicted on the play’s poster) and the mixture of reggae and rave capture the multi-racial stew in which this plot is boiling.

The intersections with white privilege are particularly candid especially a conversation between a drug dealer and his client, the dealer carefully explaining the business acumen he needs and how he has no time for social niceties.

This vibrant modern play buoyed by two engaging central performances suggests that its promising actor/playwright Bisset-Smith (already BAFTA nominated) is one to watch.

Whitewash runs at Soho Theatre London until 27 July

The story of Mary and Lysander – a mixed-race woman and her very white son – at the Soho Theatre blog