Stage works which are grounded in the autobiographical sufferings of a writer-protagonist turn out more often than not to be fired with righteous indignation but less than compelling as pieces of theatre. Jeremy Weller of the Grassmarket Project has made a career out of dramatising real-life hardships, at the risk of being unfairly stigmatised as a kind of theatrical ambulance-chaser. Some of his productions have achieved a staggering power, most notably 1990's Glad, in which several homeless men from Edinburgh's Grassmarket re-enacted their own experiences.
20-52, the first GMP play to be seen in London since Glad, follows the same strategy of using non-professional actors to recount a story of genuine distress. In this case, the central character is Stephanie Lightfoot-Bennett, who has spent more than three years campaigning for her twin brother's death in police custody to be acknowledged as unlawful killing rather than the drugs overdose which was alleged in the initial inquest, partly as a result of falsified medical evidence. It deals not simply with the issue of Leon Patterson's death and the (to be charitable) irregularities surrounding it, but the fallout in Lightfoot-Bennett's own life: a disintegrating family, exploitation by liberal crusaders keen to adopt her as a pet cause and the psychological toll upon her of fighting a long, lonely battle.
At the last moment, and shortly before a third inquest opens on her brother, Stephanie Lightfoot-Bennett herself has taken over from the professional actress due to play her during the London run. She gives a blistering, unstinting and (hardly surprisingly) utterly natural performance as herself, taking the play out of the realm of worthy earnestness and achieving a fervent synthesis of drama and real life. The only cavil is that the treatment of Lightfoot-Bennett's own tribulations may be a little one-sided: we see her single-minded devotion to mastering the details of Leon's case, her martyrdom in the face of uncomprehending family and patronising "helpers" and her growing personal anguish, but the views of those around her seem a little like Aunt Sallies, set up to be knocked down by her juggernaut determination.
No doubt it seems callous to review 20-52 as if it were no more than a piece of theatre, but it should be judged by the standards of the medium. No matter: in the end, it works. One of my colleagues remarked afterwards, "You can't argue with it, and I don't like plays you can't argue with." Factual plays, though, are no less open to criticism than fictional ones. It so happens that Weller and Lightfoot-Bennett are aware that, in creating a dramatic vehicle for the issue at hand, the dramatic component is of at least equal weight. They do admirable justice to the subject matter; it is to be hoped that the upcoming inquest does likewise.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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