A LONG WAY FROM DOCK GREEN…
Gail Wilde earned her nickname at Hendon. A firecracker, an enthusiastic gym-bunny aglow with desire to be a good copper in the Met. She turns up early for her first day in a tough South London nick, stalwart and bouncy. She exemplifies the ideas spoken – moments earlier under a lone spotlight – by Sir Robert Peel in an earlier century. The police are civilians, he tells us, keeping order by consent and co-operation with the public; use minimal force only when “persuasion, advice and warning” have failed, offer“service and friendship” to all, regardless of social standing.
Brings tears to your eyes, it does. But once Peel has left the stage and Roy Williams’ play takes us to the modern badlands, it’s goodbye to shades of Dixon of Dock Green and the start of PC Gail’s decline into canteen culture complicity, fear, cynicism, grief, misjudgement, betrayal, violent delusion and final ruin. Lorraine Stanley achieves all this in a tour-de-force performance in ninety minutes straight, against a strong mobile ensemble under Maria Aberg’s fluid, high-speed, jump-cut direction.
Ironically, though, the play’s brisk exciting pace militates against its story: we are shown every stage of Gail’s decline from a happy wife and mother enjoying the comradeship of her new job, but her dissolution happens so fast that credibility becomes strained. The play would have been better given room to breathe: her relationship with a job-seeking husband and invisible daughter in particular is handled with peremptory sketchiness. Though perhaps this is intended to reinforce the fact that there is more vivid importance for her in the banter, frustration and urgency of the police world . That is indeed beautifully drawn, especially Fraser James as the weary sergeant passed over for promotion and Ricky Champ as Gail’s decent partner, who both commits something shocking under provocation and then is victim of something worse.
Williams is frank in the programme notes about his gradual journey from 1980s resentment to a more sympathetic view of the toughness of police work in a city of gangs and a time of riots. Aberg certainly knows how to direct a riot, and her use of vulturous hoodies watching overhead during the officers’ work and domestic travails is brilliantly chilling. But just too much is packed in to those ninety minutes: from the first stream of vomit to several riots, an unofficial grass, a drugs raid, police brutality, a murder, an inter-colleague affair, prescription drug addiction and domestic violence both sides of the thin blue line. It would be a better play if he focused more closely, gave us time to hope that each disaster might resolve before plunging us neck-deep in awful consequences.
There is also a technical problem caused by Naomi Dawson’s sparse gymnasium-style set: the acoustic is so echoey, and the style so naturalistically shouty, that you miss a lot of Williams’ best lines. Which is a shame because if you read the text a lot of them are very sharp indeed.
But it’s certainly not boring: and salutary for a theatre-believer to observe that whereas a murder in a TV police-procedural or detective story rarely even puts you off your macaroni cheese, done onstage it stops your breath with horror. I hope this playwright returns to the police theme. More slowly.
box office 020 7722 9301 http://www.hampsteadtheatre.com to 29 Nov