Young Vic and Eclipse Theatre production
Sus is a political play about the racism inherent in the police system and in the society it protects in the UK, racism of the covert and the overt kind, but mostly the overt. A cast of three characters lead us through a brutal dance, set in 1979, the election night when Margaret Thatcher won her landslide victory and the night two of our players terrorise the other.
The villain of the piece, Karn, played by Simon Armstrong, speaks of a New Dawn to his prisoner Delroy, played with aching and disturbing intensity by Clint Dyer. It is one of 'those' political plays in which the actors are too drained to smile in the curtain call. So, by and large, were the audience.
The basic plot is that two unpleasant cops, with too much power and too much anger, bring in another angry young man, a black man they believe to be guilty of a crime. Delroy, the suspect, suffers at the hands of his gaolers, who wax lyrical on their own virtues, all the time spilling out bile of prejudice and hate.
The stage is fairly bare; three chairs and a telephone, but the frightening claustrophobia is conveyed to us by a low ceiling hanging ominously above the action with four wires delineating the boundaries of the police holding room. It's pretty grey and grim. Armstrong's free and easy movements within this despairing space contribute to a performance indicative of years of bullying and pusillanimity that have built up over years of interviewing life's losers in this room.
And there's no denying Delroy is a loser. He can't get a job, he can't pay the bills, he's always being picked up by the police. Dyer's jerky, unsettled body language in the first Act depicts a man who just can't find a break and is struggling to hold on. We know from the outset he is about to have the worst night of his life and he doesn't look very prepared.
For the most part, the show is believable. The language may be dated in places - it is thirty years old - and some of the politics may be dated as well, but a lot of the social problems are the same. The performances are excellent. Laurence Spellman, who plays Wilby, has the hardest job. His character's wardrobe borders on caricature. His fights also look rather choreographed with the audience seated so close to the action.
However, Spellman and Armstrong convince as the good cop/bad cop pair. They could double up as racist cop and racist zealot cop. And poor old Delroy just gets savaged. For eighty minutes. Although it is Armstrong who has all the dialogue, it is Dyer who has all the anguish, all the pain, all the trauma and his performance really lifts up the show into a relevant and thought provoking piece of theatre.
It's exhausting to watch. The director, Gbolahan Obisesan, does a good job of maintaining the atmosphere of tension, playing down Keeffe's occasional use of unexpected and politically incorrect comedy, in favour of a more serious tone and pace.
A little laughter here and there would have been a welcome thing. When the actors did go for a gag, the audience were too afraid to smile. Perhaps that inability to relax and laugh and escape for a second reflected the cell we were watching and brought us into a more intimate space with the actors.
Sus is definitely theatre with a point to make and it makes it well. It is also an entertaining, if extremely dark, evening of drama with a fine central performance.
If you are planning a trip to the theatre with your elderly Grandmother as a treat for her and she only likes Doris Day, then don't see this. If you are planning a trip to the theatre to lose yourself in a story for an hour or so and to engage in a debate on racism that still rages then this may well be the show for you.
"Sus" runs at Birmingham Rep until Saturday 29th May 2010.
Philip Fisher reviewed this production at the Young Vic
Reviewer: Lizzie Singh