The Hounding of David Oluwale

Kester Aspden, adapted for the stage by Oladipo Agboluaje
Eclipse Theatre
Hackney Empire and touring

Production photo

This play opens with police frogmen recovering a body from the River Aire in Leeds in 1969. It is David Oluwale, an immigrant from Nigeria known to the police as a vagrant. He has injuries not compatible with having jumped or fallen into the river and a detective from Scotland Yard is called to Leeds to investigate. He uncovers enough about Oluwale's life and his treatment by some members of the police at Millgarth Police Station who, he discovers referred to Oluwale as their playmate, to try to bring them to trial for murder.

Since Aspden's book Nationality: Wog, published two years ago, drew on archives then only recently released to the public domain, one might have expected this to be a verbatim theatre type treatment of such material but Agboluaje takes a much more imaginative approach resurrecting Oluwale in search of justice and to show us the facts as seen from his situation.

What we get are the facts with little added. We range from Lagos market and the dark hold of the ship in which Oluwale arrived as a stow-away immigrant in 1949 to the bright lights of a Mecca dance hall, a grim mental hospital, the wrecked house where he used to live and the glossy new Leeds city centre and the relentlessness with which these police hound their victim is because he keeps returning to mar its bright clean image. That contrast is the one thing that is lacking in Emma Wee's atmospheric set which conjures both Nigeria warmth and slum clearance squalor. There is no invented motivation to explain the racism of the implicated police and the cast, who double many roles, give some of those characters seen only briefly more vivid personalities than the two men eventually charged.

Oluwale himself also remains something of an enigma. We glimpse only moments of his twenty years living in Yorkshire, in and out of work, prison and psychiatric institution where he is subjected to insulin and electric-shock treatments. Is his mental condition supposedly related to an earlier beating or is it already present in his behaviour as a young man in Africa? Is he indeed mentally ill or just short-tempered and frustrated?

Daniel Francis - so brilliant in The Brothers Size - gives a masterly performance, a powerful picture of a man's disintegration from confident jitterbugger to a halting wreck. He never plays for sympathy and we see what a difficult customer he could be. I would not have wanted to be one of the social workers - or indeed police - who had to cope with his demands, but coping is part of their job.

Howard Charles brings some humanity to another policeman and as a friend of Oluwale, and Laura Power and Clare Perkins (both a considerate policewoman and Oluwale's mother) have kindlier material to work with than Steve Jackson and Luke Jardine's vicious cops. Ryan Early as the investigating DCS does not have much opportunity to develop his character either, Except in the way in which he is ostracised by the Force he is investigating, a faint parallel to the racism and inhumanity shown to Oluwale.

There is sly comment on colonial racism too in a scene where tennis balls keep landing from an off-stage Lagos tennis match, the players taking it for granted the native 'boys' will deliver them back. Such touches steal time from what is already a very compact script but add much to preventing it becoming one-dimensional, as do the moments of humour which are occasionally allowed.

In Dawn Walton's fast-moving production such density requires concentration from the audience, especially when so much of the dialogue is heavy with East African accents, but it is worth the effort for this is an important reminder of the effects of both racism and homelessness. The policemen involved could not be shown to have actually caused Oluwale's death. They were found not guilty of manslaughter, but they were both found guilty on two charges of assault and one of them on a third charge too.

Ended at Hackney Empire 28th March, then Nottingham Playhouse 31st March - 4th April 2009

Ray Brown reviewed this production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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