Lion & Unicorn Theatre, London
Written by Barrie Keefe
Directed by Paul Tomlinson
Barrie Keefe’s Sus is revived in an intimate traverse setting at Kentish Town’s Lion & Unicorn theatre. Inspired by and drawn from the police’s “stopping on SUSpicion” powers of the 1970’s that were widely misused against the black community, the producers are keen to suggest that not a lot has changed in the last 35 years.
Set on the eve of Margaret Thatcher’s first election victory, the one act play’s action never leaves a police interview room. Interestingly, the crime for which Delroy, a black man who has been brought in from the pub for questioning, is not a SUS matter, but rather the recent bloody death of his pregnant wife, where CID officers Karn and Wilby have not unreasonable initial grounds to suspect him of her murder. It is the extent however to which these institutionally racist coppers pursue their line of inquiry, throwing their rule book out of the window and treating their suspect appallingly, that makes for such gripping theatre that is at times unbearable to watch.
Keefe’s writing has always been gritty, peppered with just enough coarse language and above all sprinkled with frequent exchanges of cockney gallows-humour that only an accomplished London writer can master. That a highly charged moment of confrontation can be reduced, in a moment, to a comparison of the respective sexual charms of TV newsreaders Anna Ford and Angela Rippon (this is 1979 remember) demonstrates Keefe’s ability to make one chuckle uncomfortably whilst at the same time cranking up the dramatic tension.
Wole Sawyerr is Delroy who, as the the mood of the piece darkens, digs deep to find his his grief and his rage . When he is beaten up by Wilby, one feels for the agony of the blows and his pleading tears crave our sympathy. Of the two cops, Nason Crone’s Wilby is perhaps the most stereotyped. His is the lesser educated of the two policemen, most capable of expressing his contempt for Delroy with his fists. Wilby is a complex character with whom Crone has yet to engage at an appropriate level of depth.
It is Alexander Neal’s Karn that is the engine at the core of this production in a performance that again demonstrates the excellence to be found on London’s fringe. Neal relishes every word of Keefe’s carefully crafted irony and chain smoking, moustachioed and with hair greased back, he embodies a truly ugly side of the police that Life on Mars’ Gene Hunt set about portraying in an altogether lighter vein.
Seen today, Sus is a fascinating piece of historical comment, that at the very least was prescient in describing the culture that was to surround the police response to the tragic murder of Stephen Lawrence. Two years after the play premiered at Theatre Royal Stratford East (where Paul Barber defined Delroy) Brixton and Toxteth erupted into riot, largely prompted by an abuse of the Sus laws. The programme states that this production is a response to the 2011 riots but that association seems a little opportunistic. The social and violent unrest of those more recent summer troubles was certainly a complex cocktail, probably fuelled by a lot more than just a kicking out at a racist police force.
As an observation, the packed audience on press night (some of whom were atrociously behaved and all credit to the actors for playing on) was entirely white, not an accurate reflection of this city’s ethnic make-up and Sus is nothing if not a play that deserves to be seen by all. A strong company, Neal’s chilling performance and Keefe’s still shockingly electric writing make for a troubling 90 minutes. Catch it if you can.