Southwark Playhouse – until 1 February 2020
Set in 1957, Cops tells the story of four very different Chicago police officers who, despite their differences, need to find a way to work together. There are broader plot elements, involving the mob, bringing an informant in, and trying to root out an internal mole, but these bits feel throw-away, often relegated to the domain of farce, as the play shifts to focus on the more personal stories of our four protagonist cops.
Cops beautifully evokes the late 1950s, helped by Anthony Lamble’s meticulously designed set. However, this purist approach to the period can in places make the performances feel stilted, as if they’ve been lifted from films of the era, which can distract from the emotional realism of the piece. This is a time when racism and misogyny were rampant, and that intolerance threads through the piece.
Racist veteran cop Stan (Roger Alborough) is struggling to adapt to a changing world. This is a character who can’t even speak to the women working within the police force without insulting them, which is played for laughs at his expense. He is the dinosaur. Foxy (Jack Flammiger), the young officer who loves to sing Elvis and provoke his colleagues, is so convincingly obnoxious it set my teeth on edge, so this isn’t a play that has rose-tinted views about the liberality of youth either.
Meanwhile, African American cop Rosey (Daniel Francis) and Polish cop Eulee (James Sobol Kelly) seem immune to the racism and xenophobia that swirls around them, it is such a normal ingredient of the world they live in. This is not a play that buys into the drug of nostalgia, it is not afraid to present the world as it was, with all its ugliness and transparent intolerance. But ultimately the racism of this world is simply part of the context, and is not a central theme of the story.
So what is the play about? Once we put the farcical elements to one side, this is a play about four men, each damaged and struggling in their own way. Or maybe that should be three men, I don’t think we get to know Rosey and his back story that well. Stan, Foxy and Eulee have their vulnerabilities exposed to lesser or greater extents. It helps us understand how they behave and relate to each other, and brings a greater depth to the play.
The cast all give strong performances, but they are contending with a lot of distracting ingredients which hamper their ability to land the full emotional force of their personal stories. There is definite scope to tighten the piece up, and make the different tonal beats flow better, both in Tony Tortora’s writing and Andy Jordan’ direction. The speed at which the show shifts from an emotionally significant moment to physical farce is disorienting in places, and makes the overall show feel a bit confused.
There are lots of interesting ingredients in ‘Cops’ and the successful laugh out loud moments are satisfying, however there is a lack of emotional direction and consistency that undermines of the overall power of the play.
‘Cops’ runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 1st February.