Writer: Barrie Keeffe
Director: Paul Tomlinson
We look to the past to help us in understanding the present. Barrie Keeffe’s short, sharp and shocking account of the methods used by Metropolitan Police officers was written in 1979 and it is set in May of that year, on the night of Margaret Thatcher’s first election victory. The key question relating to this revival must be whether or not it sheds light on more recent controversies involving the Met and other forces.
Director Paul Tomlinson’s production is performed in a small studio space on a traverse stage, giving the audience a sense of being flies on the wall of the interrogation room where the drama unfolds. The “sus” is Delroy (Stedroy Cabey), a black man who is well accustomed to being hauled in by the Police on suspicion of having committed a variety of offences. He has a confident air, because he has no doubt that, on this occasion as on all others, he will be released without charge.
The volatile interrogators are Detective Sergeant Karn (Alexander Neal) and Detective Constable Wilby (Fergal Coghlan), both delighted with way that the election results are going. They draw Delroy into sexist banter, debating which of the television newsreaders, Anna Ford and Angela Rippon, they would choose to bed; and then, after an hour, they inform him that his wife is dead and that he is suspected and presumed guilty of her murder.
In 1979, the phrase “institutional racism” had not come into common usage with regard to Police forces and it is difficult to assess how the racism, sexism and complete absence of compassion displayed by the officers, now so deeply offensive, would have been regarded by the play’s contemporary audiences. Would they have seen this neanderthal behaviour as normal and expected or would they have been as appalled as now? Time has changed much, but the abuse seen in the play, both verbal and physical, is made frighteningly realistic by superb acting.
Keeffe links the play closely to political developments, seeing the 1979 General Election as a watershed in United Kingdom history, which indeed it turned out to be. As expressed in the wishful thinking of Karn, the writer predicts a lurch in the direction of fascism. However, such politics are now less relevant than the questions which the play asks about policing. We are left wondering whether Keeffe exposed the roots of attitudes and practices which still prevail today.
Tomlinson’s unfussy production matches the tightness of the writing, but the language used and the period details seem likely to distance today’s audiences from the drama. This revival needs a modern day perspective in order to reinforce it as more than just a glimpse into our social history. Nonetheless, SUS remains a powerful indictment of those in whom we trust to protect us.
Runs until 15 October 2022