Ovalhouse – until 22 June 2019
Reviewed by Claire Roderick
Urban Wolf and Tom Wainwright’s devastatingly intense play about the death of a black man in police custody is full of passion and rage, portraying the stark reality of police brutality and prejudice without reverting to tired tropes.
The play begins with the characters moving dazedly around in front of a shrine to the dead man, Brian. The characters then recite the words used to inform them of his death in a disjointed and repetitive chorus “There was a bit of a scuffle and I’m sorry to say, he passed away.” These vague words hide the fact that Brian was stopped and searched, simply for being a young black man driving a BMW, taken into custody and beaten, mocked and asphyxiated. Taking this far too common event as a starting point, Urban Wolf and Wainwright focus on the aftermath of the death and its traumatic effects on family and friends over the next two years. Director Gbemisola Ikumelo keeps the action pacy, while still allowing the characters quiet moments to connect with and spear the audience.
Beginning with the characters speaking directly to the dead man, describing what he was to them, and did for them, their grief is palpable. When the verdict of unlawful killing is reached, but no police officers are charged due to insufficient evidence, even though CCTV footage is available, the grieving process is stalled further. Brian’s brother, always in his shadow, becomes bitter and angry about his dead brother, mocking him as a sell-out coconut, while his sister rails against the system and begins a loud and vocal campaign for justice, their mother, losing her first born and favourite son, becomes convinced that Brian is trapped and cannot enter the afterlife, so returns to her Nigerian roots and obsessively gives offerings to the orisha to help him pass over. Brian’s fiancée, the woman he was going to spend his life with, is side-lined by the family as she isn’t quite one of them and doesn’t share all their memories.
The cast give nuanced, focussed and heart-breaking performances, with Urban Wolf and Ewa Dina utterly believable as siblings. They are both dynamic and sharp, bubbling with fury and grief, but always slipping back into childish mockery that is tender and comforting. The comic timing is fantastic, especially in one argument where their foul-mouthed abuse of each other is punctuated by repeated apologies to their mother for their language. As their mother, Muna Otaru is gut-wrenching, proud and dignified at first, but gradually unravelling into confusion and ill-health. Rochelle James gives a shattering performance as Brian’s fiancée, conveying her emptiness and loss effortlessly as she mistakenly tries to find comfort with his brother, and then realises that she needs to move on and start a new life.
Fran Horler’s design is inspired, a brick wall with a head shaped hole, which becomes the focal point representing Brian throughout the play, opens to show a white tiled room that doubles as kitchen and mortuary. Movement director Sara Dos Santos has created some powerful and chilling sequences as the three cast members represent Brian speaking to his mother in an increasingly disturbing and ritualistic manner.
Custody is a play that MUST be seen, highlighting the injustices of our system in a dynamic, forceful and accessible production.