Young Vic Theatre (Clare), London SE1
Opened 10 June, 2010

At first it seems as if Barrie Keefe’s play is written to push buttons of 1979 period kitsch, as characters discuss the relative attractions of newsreaders Angela Rippon and Anna Ford and anticipate the victory of Margaret Thatcher in that day’s general election. But Keeffe wrote the play within a few weeks of that election, and in Gbolohan Obisesan’s taut studio revival it soon becomes apparent why. For these are police officers hopeful that Thatcher will free them from the inconveniences of responsibility to those they arrest, especially too-smart black people like Leon Delroy. Delroy believes that he has been hauled in, as so often before, on “sus”, the catch-all powers of arrest on suspicion which were widely abused (especially along racial lines) at the time. DS Karn and DC Wilby take their time before revealing that they suspect him of murdering his wife.

Keeffe’s play is clearly a work of agitprop, but it continues to work because the police are not one-note thugs and villains, nor Delroy a saint. The interrogation ranges from banter to bellowing (for instance, Karn is unemphatic in his repeated references to Delroy and his family going to Kingston, Jamaica as “back home”, although Delroy is British-born); the two alternate good cop, bad cop roles; the violence, though inevitable, is held back until just before the end of the 80-minute piece. Sus was not Keeffe’s original choice of title, but it too has subtle reverberations. Delroy is told on his release that his ordeal will be reclassified as a sus incident; in other words, the sus power was abused not simply in itself, but as a whitewash of more serious cases.

Simon Armstrong is a smiling villain as Karn, Laurence Spellman broods as effectively as anyone can in those ’70s threads as Wilby and Clint Dyer makes a powerful journey from assurance to panic to grim resolution as Delroy. With its references to the hated Special Patrol Group and given the abolition of sus powers in 1980, the play may appear dated. However, new stop-and-search powers in the Terrorism Act 2000 are exercised so disproportionately along racial lines that there is even evidence of some people being stopped simply to try to balance the racial statistics. David Cameron stated in opposition that he would like to see powers of this kind extended. So much for period kitsch.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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