Custody – Ovalhouse, London

Creator: Urban Wolf
Writer: Tom Wainwright
Director: Gbemisola Ikumelo
Reviewer: Deborah Klayman

When a young black man dies in custody, the impact ripples through his family and community. Inspired by real life experiences of creator Urban Wolf (a.k.a. Urbain Hayo), and written by veteran playwright Tom Wainwright, Custody is a searing examination of institutional racism, which is simultaneously eye-opening and disturbingly familiar.


As they attempt to hold the Police to account, Brian’s mother (Karlina Grace-Paseda), sister (Kiké Brimah), brother (Urbain Hayo), and fiancée (Sacharissa Claxton) try to cope with their loss while battling their anger, outrage and sense of injustice. Each character carries a bag with them, seemingly signifying the weight of their grief as they carry Brian everywhere with them. Although he does not appear on stage, Brian is everywhere, from the silhouettes backdrop to the skilfully scripted memory sequences where he is given voice by the other characters

Stylish, stylised sequences depict stop and search, Police brutality, and Brian’s ultimate death due to positional asphyxiation. These moments are electric and affecting, with tightly choreographed movements coupled with unison dialogue which is both lyrical and deftly punctuated. The use of rhythm, breath and body has a visceral impact, creating an atmosphere of tension and grief is truly palpable, underscored throughout by Dan Bilbrough’s atmospheric and oppressive compositions.

The four-strong cast are superb throughout this piece, a true company who segue from the naturalistic to nightmarish fantasy seamlessly. Shot through with sincere, tangible emotion, Custody also shows the sometimes surprising moments of lightness and humour that can accompany bereavement. Grace-Paseda is a formidable presence throughout, eliciting both chuckles of recognition and intakes of breath from the audience as she runs the full gamut from incandescent rage to utter devastation. The impact Brian’s death has on her faith and sense of self is beautifully drawn and explored, with sinister representations of her inner world brought to life by the rest of the cast. Claxton gives a wonderful performance, subtle and nuanced, bringing a lightness to the role despite her all-encompassing heartbreak. Likewise, Brimah makes the most of her character’s journey from carefree teenager to hardened campaigner, consumed by the fight for justice and her overwhelming sense of responsibility. She is compelling to watch, struggling to make sense of a senseless situation, but ultimately realising the institutions that let her brother down will bring her no legal redress. Hayo’s character initially feels disconnected from the others, and a little underpowered; however, his evolution throughout the piece epitomises the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement, a young man galvanised as he realises the status quo cannot remain. His closing speech, choked with emotion, was incredibly moving and reeked of sincerity.

Custody is a vital play, confronting without being confrontational, emotionally raw and stylistically bold. If it is theatre’s job to hold up a mirror, they have not only achieved this but taken us through the looking glass. Political theatre at its finest.

Runs until 8 April 2017 | Image: Lidia Crisafulli

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