Tricycle Theatre's 'The Riots'

London riots 2011 London riots 2011 - © PA Wire/Press Association Images
Posted: Mon Nov 7 2011

A new verbatim production at the Tricycle is asking big questions about this summer's riots.

Three months ago, London was burning. Riots began on August 6 in Tottenham, after police shot local man Mark Duggan and failed to inform his family. Over the next three nights they spread: to Enfield, Brixton, Clapham, Hackney, Walthamstow, Croydon, Camden and beyond.

Footage of burning buses and buildings pinged around the world and the commentariat zoomed back from holiday, mostly seeing their own long-held views illuminated by the flames. Eventually, police and wet weather dampened the looters' ardour. Those culprits who were caught received tough justice. And Londoners got together and swept up the mess.

The smoke has cleared now, but has anything really changed? Social media was a catalyst, but what were the causes? Could London burn again?

These urgent questions have prompted Tricycle Theatre boss Nicolas Kent, who brought the Hutton, Stephen Lawrence and Scott inquiries to his Kilburn venue, to stage a new theatrical inquiry. 'I think it's terrifyingly bad of the coalition not to have a public inquiry into the riots,' he says, brandishing the two hefty mauve-bound volumes which contain the Lawrence Report to prove his point. 'Inquiries are a catharsis but they also change society. Look at Lawrence: 70 out of 75 of its recommendations have been implemented. That is major.'

There was no judicial transcript to boil down into verbatim theatre this time, so writer Gillian Slovo made direct contact with police, rioters, prominent locals in Tottenham and Hackney, and politicians from Diane Abbott to Michael Gove.

'I wanted to have as many voices as possible from different sides,' Slovo explains. She met with very little resistance. 'People wanted to have their voices heard,' she says. The rioters were the hardest to reach. 'The ones awaiting trial were advised by their lawyers not to talk to us, and many of the ones who haven't been caught saw no benefit in talking to us,' she says.

Many culprits were already serving harsh sentences. So the Tricycle advertised in prison newspapers. One Holloway inmate who responded was Chelsea Ives, the teenager who was plastered over the tabloids after her mother shopped her to the police. 'The public just need to know I'm only accountable for my actions and not everyone else's,' she writes. 'And that I'm sorry.'

In the bright, light rehearsal rooms upstairs at the Tricycle, a lively, complex, painstakingly accurate portrait is emerging. Slovo's script summarises hours of interviews, but the actors are also responsible for their characters: they construct them from the complete transcripts, not just the highlights.

Actor Cyril Nri plays Pastor Nims Obunge, the reverend who was with Mark Duggan's family on that initial march from Broadwater Farm to Tottenham police station to demand justice and answers. He also plays a high-ranking black police officer, Superintendent Leroy Logan.

'It's about getting the essence of these men,' says Nri. 'It's a bit like looking at the highlights instead of trawling through BBC Parliament, which would bore you rigid. But it's a balanced highlight, not a Fox News highlight!'

Nri has met both of his real-life counterparts. He describes Obunge, whose words leap off the page, as 'quite Desmond Tutu: there's a lot of fun in him.' Logan is different: 'Leroy is quite studied and forensic,' says Nims. 'He is a superintendent but also a man who was stopped and searched in his youth: in fact his father was stopped and searched and beaten up, which is the experience of a lot of black men.'

Is that Nri's experience? He chuckles: 'Having played superintendent Adam Okaro in “The Bill” for a couple of years, I don't get searched now. If anything I get referred to as “Guv”.' But he feels for the youngsters who, he says, 'get stopped eight out of ten times just for walking out the door.'

One great strength of verbatim theatre at the Tricycle is its ability to breathe the life back into the headlines: to articulate complex, devastating political issues by taking a scrupulous interest in their real actors, the prejudiced, passionate people who embody our fallible institutions and sometimes try to burn them down. It's drama and it's also a much-needed overview.

So it is striking that everyone who is involved in 'The Riots' has a different take on them. Director Kent feels that Tottenham was 'a classic race riot'. Nri disagrees, arguing that: 'It's more about deprivation, and people not listening. If you keep telling somebody that their life is worth nothing, they will take you at your word and conclude that your life and rules are worth nothing either.'

But the strongest theme which emerges is greed. As Nri points out, 'Some of the MPs calling for tough sentences claimed thousands of pounds on expenses. What's the difference between nicking a flatscreen TV from Curry's or claiming for it illegally?'

Greed is the dynamic underlying principle of capitalism, and a culture of greed unrestrained created our bankers' high stakes gamble on everyone's futures and our MPs inflated expense claims, just as it motivated the looters nicking carpets, shoes and white goods.

Writer Gillian Slovo has the last word: 'The wider riots were not racial,' she suggests. 'There was a rage between the haves and have-nots. Consumer values have infected everyone, including people who can't afford them.' And her last word is far from final: 'The riots were stopped by rain,' she says. 'If something is stopped by rain, the sun can start it again.'