Free Speech or Cancel Culture

“The paradox of tolerance.”

Baxter Forrest, after Karl Popper

Julian Nichols os Professor Charles Nichols. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

The title to Paul Grellong’s play Power of Sail is about motorised craft giving way to those only powered by the wind, or sail boats.  In Professor Charles Nichols’ (Julian Ovendon) Harvard office is a large model of a sailboat, illustrating his passion for sailing and the cohesion needed by any sail boat crew.  The symbolic cohesion needed by the Harvard academic department is falling apart because Charles Nichols has invited Benjamin Carver, a white supremacist and Holocaust denier to a symposium hosted by the university. 

The author has revived and rewritten this earlier play and it appeared in 2022 in Los Angeles with Bryan Cranston in the lead role of the professor whose star is fading.  Nichols has made his reputation by the study of American Nazis.

Giles Terera as Baxter Forrest and Michael Benz as Lucas Poole. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Nichols’ argument is that while the other nine or so speakers will present the liberal viewpoint, the counter arguments of diversity, equality and inclusion will with certainty sway the day, but Carver has to be allowed for the purposes of free speech.  The students have got word of this unwanted bigot being given a platform and are assembling in protest. 

Professor Nichols is approached by his dean at the university, Amy Katz (Tanya Franks) and sticks to his decision.  Nichols repeatedly says “the answer to hate speech is more speech.” 

A Black alumni, Baxter Forrest (Giles Terera), a protegee of Nichols, who has now become a celebrity broadcaster argues against his former mentor.  Nichols is invited to Carver’s enclave and approaches two students competing for the same post graduate scholarship to accompany him.  They are Maggie Rosen (Katie Bernstein) who is closely connected to the protesting students and Lucas Poole (Michael Benz) who is studying the extremely dry subject of post 17th century Swedish agriculture.  Poole agrees to come with Nichols and they meet at the railway station where Poole explains his difficulty in getting accepted at universities due to his lack of diversity.  Nothing to do with the tedium of his research topic then! 

Katie Bernstein as Maggie Rosen and Tanya Franks as Amy Katz. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Paul Farnsworth’s set has sliding partitions to turn the study bookcases into a railway station and later a bar with projected chants of the student protestors to divert us during the set changes.  During the first scene Nichols has showed his age in disrespect for his students in describing them as “babies” and saying that they come to lectures wearing pyjamas!

The acting is exceptional. Julian Ovendon’s academic sheltering from the real world, the hesitation of Tanya Franks’ Amy Katz to show leadership, the earnestness of Katie Bernstein’s Maggie Rosen in proposing her SSM, the curiously named “Safe space meeting” and the resentment of Michael Benz as Lucas Poole and Giles Terera’s friendly approach as Baxter Forrest.  I liked too the cameo from Georgia Landers as the FBI agent sent to investigate the potential for hate crime. 

The set times of the play will loop back and forth with shocking revelations a critic shouldn’t reveal as the dirt is dished on most characters and a tragedy inflames the situation.  It is a shame that the Carver character whom we never meet is obviously one promoting hatred and anti-semitism rather than some of the personalities unplatformed recently in the UK; I’m thinking JK Rowling and Germaine Greer denied the opportunity to make their case. 

Paul Grellong could not hope for a better director than Dominic Dromgoole to give his play its platform and I welcome the opportunity Power of Sail gives towards the discussion of free speech and cancel culture. 

Production Notes

Power of Sail
Written by Paul Grellong

Directed by Dominic Dromgoole



Julian Ovenden

Georgia Landers

Giles Terera

Katie Bernstein

Michael Benz

Paul Rider

Tanya Franks


Director: Dominic Dromgoole

Designer:  Paul Farnsworth

Video Designer: Leo Flint

Lighting Designer:  Oliver Fenwick

Sound Designer: Ella Wahlström

Dramaturg: Mike Sablone


Running Time: One hours 45 minutes with an interval

Booking to 12th May 2024


Menier Chocolate Factory

53 Southwark Street

London SE1 1RU

Box Office enquiries: 

Tube/Rail : London Bridge

Telephone: 020 7378 1713 


Reviewed by

Lizzie Loveridge

at the performance

at the Chocolate Factory

on  Friday 29th March 2024