The Only White by Gail Louw. Chelsea Theatre, World’s End, London SW10 to 22 April 2023. 4****. William Russell.

In 1964 John Harris, a member of the African Resistance Movement, who had planted a bomb in the railway station at Johannesburg, was hanged by the South African Government as a terrorist. He was the only white man to be hanged – his associates escaped the death penalty, one of them, giving the evidence which led to Harris being convicted. Gail Louw has crafted an interesting and moving story based on the time Harris’s wife spent with the parents of Peter Hain. Their son David had just been born and they took Ann Harris in. The play shows the reaction of the 14 year old Peter, now Lord Hain, to the events he played a part in and to how his parents, also opponents of apartheid, dealt with the arrest and show trial that followed. Harris had apparently given warning that the bomb had been placed but the authorities, and the paper trail led to the very top to the Minister of Justice John Vorster, who was later to become Prime Minister, decided to let it go off. One person was killed and 23 were injured. The Hains had been leading members of the Liberal Party who had opposed apartheid and were friends of Harris – his wife Ann came to them after his arrest saying she needed somewhere to stay to be near to him and they took her in. They did not approve of what Harris and his colleagues in the ARM had been doing – the bomb had followed a series of sabotage incidents, blowing up electricity pylons, which as a protest had not worked. They ARM then decided to up the stakes with the bomb.

Director Anthony Shrubsall has placed Harris in his cell at the centre of the play so we watch him while we see the events in the Hain household taking place. It is hugely effective. The Hains were eventually banned and in due course left South Africa, their son going on to a long political career here. There have been documentaries about what happened to Harris but this is the first attempt to dramatise his story and while it has problems creating the world of apartheid the result is deeply effective as at the end the cast sing We Shall Overcome. Harris was deliberately killed as a warning to others on what does appear to be false evidence – his associates escaped.

Over a hundred black South Africans were also hanged, six at a time, as terrorists – something the regime has since recognised. Harris was hanged alone. The story does belong to the past but it has resonances for today – lives matter whether white or black.

John Harris: Edward Gage-Green.

Ann Harris: |Avena Mansergh-Wallace.

Peter Hain: Gil Sisdeway.

Hain senior: Robert Blackwood.

Mrs Hain: Emma Wilkinson Wright.

Director: Anthony Shrubsall.

Lighting & Sound: Chuma Emembolu.

Design: Male Arcucci.

Production photographs: Becca Rowson

ReviewsGate Copyright Protection