Ovalhouse, London – until 8 April 2017
“There was a bit of a… There was a bit of a scuffle.”
One of the most appallingly striking statistics around police brutality in the UK is that there has not been a single prosecution for homicide for a death in custody for over 30 years and a disproportionate number – 147 to be precise – of those deaths have been BAME victims. But where the Black Lives Matter movement has gained real traction in the US, stories like these still slip by too easily unnoticed on these shores, And combined with his own experiences of the problematic stop and search system here, it is this which inspired Urbain Hayo (aka Urban Wolf) to create Custody.
It’s an undoubtedly powerful raison d’être and one which has been curiously, deliberately, filtered here through writer Tom Wainwright‘s perspective as a white, middle-class man who, one assumes, hasn’t suffered the indignities of stop and search. It’s an approach that broadens the scope of the story from the directly personal to a more universal world-view but in doing so, also mutes just a little of the fury and tragedy that is felt by the family of Brian – a successful young businessman, black – whose flash car attracts the attention of the police with devastating results.
Director Gbemisola Ikumelo melds a highly stylised approach with more conventional storytelling to make the work stand out. So the company sometimes speak as one, sometimes their dialogue overlaps in cascading waves; Cindy Claes‘ movement has them wandering lost in grief as we walk in or reenacting the police procedure that leads to the fatal incident of positional asphyxiation; Phil Newman‘s hugely inventive design brings together the domestic and the dramatic with real flair; and Sekrit‘s compositions provide a gritty sound design that is suitably ominous.
And as we follow Brian’s mother (Karlina Grace-Paseda), his sister (Kiké Brimah), his brother (Hayo), and his fiancée (Sacharissa Claxton) as they struggle through shock and outrage, we see the burning anger leaving its mark of searing injustice as they come up hard against the wall of institutional racism that is now their reality. Their differing reactions are sensitively drawn but could possibly afford to be rawer to really nail the message in the way that the play’s final moment does – a wonderfully discomfiting moment where the audience is left to feel slightly disrespectful in leaving the room, epitomising the liberal guilt that has failed to give this issue the attention it desperately deserves.