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The Riots

Gillian Slovo from spoken evidence
Tricycle Theatre
(2011)

The Riots publicity photo

Under Nicolas Kent, the Tricycle has indisputably made itself the home of highly charged, political verbatim theatre.

The Riots, which opened little more than three months after the events that it depicts, is one of the best of them all. The reason for this is that in the first half at least, there is a defined narrative thread that gives the drama the impetus of a well-made play.

In terms of subject matter and, in particular, race relations, it is probably closest to The Colour of Justice. That was the work which indicted the police for their failure to investigate the murder of Stephen Lawrence properly. Indeed, it seems timely to remind ourselves of The Colour of Justice since the latest trial of those accused of that horrific race crime is in process.

For the first hour, an assortment of those most intimately involved describe in vivid detail the riots that took place in Tottenham during early August this year. This is given particular immediacy by convincing performances and the use of spoken evidence from all of those involved.

Our on-the-spot witnesses include rioters, social workers, youth leaders and most poignantly, Selva Rasalingam as Mohamed Hammoudan, a father whose home above a carpet store was firebombed. In addition, an assortment of policemen give their side of the story.

The descriptions are fully believable and are complemented by both film of the events and also maps of the area. These are particularly helpful in enabling viewers to understand what appeared to be astounding failures by the police to do their jobs properly.

Indeed, they seem to have taken an early, undisclosed decision to give the rioters free rein as a result of which the looting was far worse than might have been the case had they adopted more normal practice. Whether this was the result of understaffing, a local football match or highly politicised policy is never quite resolved.

However, ineptitude seems the most likely bet, judging by the comments of all and sundry but particularly Chief Inspector Graham Dean, played by Tim Woodward.

The second half of the two hours is given over to politicians and others trying to discover and explain the underlying causes of the riots.

No one is ever going to come to absolute conclusions about the causes of what seem like spontaneous actions following the death of an innocent man, Mark Duggan, at the hands of the police.

According to those embroiled in events or representing the community, the police's extended use of stop and search built up animosity and suspicions of racist attitudes but wider feelings of hopelessness and dispossession might well have contributed at least as much.

The politicians on the government side, especially Michael Gove, sound uncaring and blame anyone but themselves. Gove himself comes across as unsuited to his role as Minister of Education. His wife though has some wise words to offer when she says that the underlying reasons for the riots are rather like a Rorschach ink blot. Everyone has a different interpretation.

Surprisingly, even that darling of the left Diane Abbott is less sympathetic to her constituents than one might expect.

From the politicians, it is therefore the MP for Hayes and Harlington, John McDonnell, who is most willing to speak out about what he sees as a divide in our community whereby the greedy rich commit crimes with very little punishment while the poor are incarcerated for three years, which could well have led to dissatisfaction and thus The Riots.

What Gillian Slovo and Nicholas Kent who directs have done is bring these events right back into the forefront of public attention. We can only hope that those responsible for preventing a recurrence head down to Kilburn to watch what is not only an important but also a gripping piece of political theatre.

"The Riots" plays until 10 December

Reviewer: Philip Fisher