Thursday, 8 July 2010

A 'short, sharp, shock' about police brutality in the 1970s

Picture the scene: it’s election night in a police interview room in East London, and the Conservatives are about to sweep to power. The pregnant wife of a young black man, Leon Delroy, has been found dead in a pool of blood and Delroy is brought in as the chief suspect.

Sus was written by the acclaimed dramatist Barrie Keefe (best known for writing the film The Long Good Friday) and first staged just after Margaret Thatcher’s election victory in 1979. It ran at the Young Vic theatre in London, appropriately at a time when controversy over stop and search laws is still very much at the centre of public debate, and with some political parallels too.

The storyline revolves around the interrogation of Delroy under ‘sus’, an informal name for a stop and search law that permitted a police officer to act on suspicion alone. The law was eventually abolished in 1980, it being seen as a contributing factor to the Brixton riots that year.

The audience sits very much in the interrogation room, complete with the dull glare of strip lighting and the crucial dramatic device of a telephone, used to set the context of what is happening outside. The actors even smoke real cigarettes on stage, adding to the sense of suffocation for Delroy throughout his plight.

The two protagonists in this story, white police officers Karn and Wilby (who, as the Camden New Journal put it, “make Gene Hunt look like a character from Heartbeat”), portray the type of police officer we hope has long disappeared.

Sardonic, racist and odiously officious, the actors in this production deliver a performance in this play which, in the space of the play’s single act, turns darkly humourous, laddish banter to an increasingly cold, thuggish brutality.

Sus ran at the Young Vic from 8-26 June 2010, was also recently released as a film, also written by Barrie Keefe, starring Ralph Brown and Rafe Spall.

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