'Power of Sail' review – this new play is a febrile lesson in tackling freedom of speech in academia

Read our review of Power of Sail, starring Julian Ovenden and Giles Terera, now in performances at the Menier Chocolate Factory to 12 May.

Julia Rank
Julia Rank

The title Power of Sail refers to maritime law: a ship under power of motor must give way to a ship under power of sail. First performed in Greenville, South Carolina, in 2019, Paul Grellong’s academia-set play was reprised in 2022 in Los Angeles starring Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston.

It’s timely in the way it tackles the themes of freedom of speech and cancel culture, but it’s a frustrating piece of work that veers off course into melodrama without saying anything particularly profound or memorably provocative.

Stepping into Cranston’s role, the always charismatic Julian Ovenden plays Charles Nichols, a WASP-y tenured Harvard professor (the fifth generation in his family to have attended the university) who specialises in the study of American Nazis. He’s recently divorced and experiencing something of a midlife crisis. A one-time firebrand, his rather empty response to hate speech is to encourage “more speech”.

Nichols mocks his students, whom he deems “babies”, turning up at lectures in their pyjamas and hugging pillows. Frustrated by the media success of younger and more “diverse” colleagues, he shakes things up by inviting Klan-raised white nationalist Benjamin Carver to debate on campus, confident that he’ll make mincemeat of him. The students are disgusted about Carver being given a platform and aren’t afraid to voice their displeasure, but Nichols digs his heels in.

Ovenden is joined by Giles Terera as Baxter, Nichols’s protégé-turned-celebrity academic who has eclipsed his former teacher. Briefly returning to the Boston area from Chicago to clear his late father’s house, Baxter exists to serve various plot contrivances. The scene in which Nichols turns up at the house drunk following a violent incident to ask his Black friend to write a statement about what a good guy he is shows how hollow the relationship is.

The actors who fare best with the material are Katie Bernstein and Michael Benz as Maggie and Lucas, Charles’s teaching assistants – both vying for post-doc fellowships. The gutsy Maggie, who is Jewish, turns to underhand means in order to blackmail faculty dean and fellow Jew Amy (Tanya Franks). It’s entirely implausible but Bernstein provides much-needed gumption.

Meanwhile, the brown-nosing, incel-coded Lucas sees himself as a victim (he’s annoyed that no one talks about white people having to “code switch”), being a cis-het white man researching the unsexy subject of the grain economy in 17th-century Sweden, and is as conniving as he is clueless.

Dominic Dromgoole’s dry production takes place in a cosy professorial office dominated by a model ship on a side table (the laptop and other modern conveniences look out of place in such a rarified space). The furniture is rearranged to represent a train station and a dive bar (designed by Paul Farnsworth) and angry Tweets are projected on the walls, bringing the outside anger inside.

The cut-throat nature of academia shouldn’t be underestimated, but this is a largely cartoonish representation of the field. Most of the one-liners aren’t much stronger than the dreadful jokes told by bartender Frank (Paul Rider), a character we hear about but don’t meet until his pointless appearance at the end. By that time, the ship has long since sailed.

Power of Sail is at the Menier Chocolate Factory to 12 May. Book Power of Sail tickets now on London Theatre.

Book Tickets CTA - LT/NYTG

Photo credit: Power of Sail (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

Originally published on

Subscribe to our newsletter to unlock exclusive London theatre updates!

Special offers, reviews and release dates for the best shows in town.

You can unsubscribe at any time. Privacy Policy