Sus @ Young Vic, London

cast list
Simon Armstrong, Clint Dyer, Laurence Spellman

directed by
Gbolahan Obisesan
Barrie Keeffe may be best known for writing the screenplay for the classic British gangster movie The Long Good Friday, but he has written a large number of hard-hitting, socio-political dramas with a tough urban setting.

None is more punchy than Sus, his most revived play (and recently released as a film), which was first staged in 1979.

Set on the election night of that year when Mrs Thatchers Conservative party won a landslide majority, the action takes place in the seedy interview room of an East End police station.
An unemployed black man and father of three, Delroy, is questioned by two policemen, the apparently more friendly, jocular Karn and the taciturn, po-faced Wilby. The laid-back, indeed cocky, Delroy assumes he has been brought in yet again on the casual Sus (suspect under suspicion) but when they shockingly reveal that his wife has suddenly died and he is accused of murdering her, the gloves come off as the racist interrogation becomes increasingly abusive and even violent.

Because Delroy is plainly an innocent victim while the two policemen are bigoted, sadistic thugs, Sus may seem a black-and-white piece of agitprop without much subtlety, but Keeffes no-holds-barred confrontation and razor-sharp dialogue makes for gut-wrenching drama.

The real strength of the play lies in the shifting dynamics between the three protagonists, and in its devastating indictment of police brutality towards ethnic-minority suspects. Its wider political theme, with the policemen looking forward to a new dawn when Thatch becomes prime minister so that they can do their dirty work without worrying about civil liberties, seems simplistic and less convincing.

However, Sus is a passionate and provocative slice of in yer face theatre, with considerable prescience, coming just two years before the inner-city race riots in places like Brixton. Hopefully, since the wide-ranging reforms to the police force after being found institutionally racist in the wake of its gross mishandling of Stephen Lawrence murder case in 1993, this sort of brutality does not happen now. But with stop and search laws being brought in for anyone the police consider may be terrorist suspects, when the Asian Muslim community will inevitably be targeted, the play remains all too topical.

This excellent eclipse theatre production, finishing its tour at the Young Vic, resists the temptation to do any updating as the message of Sus still hits home. Director Gbolohan Obisesan makes sure the tension never loses its grip in this 80-minute drama, staged in the round with claustrophobic power in the small Maria studio, like a boxing ring, with just a few props and a glaring, low-hung rectangular strip light.

Clint Dyer gives an emotional rollercoaster of a performance as Delroy, at first patiently playing along with what he thinks is a game, then traumatized by grief and cruelty, and ultimately angrily defiant. Simon Armstrong makes a highly impressive Karn, witheringly sardonic and oozing with menace, while Laurence Spellmans coldly officious Wilby, brooding on the killing of his dog by a rioter, lets his fists do the talking.

The visceral impact of this staging of Sus makes it feel like an X-rated version of Life on Mars Gene Hunt never crossed the line this far.

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