Four actors are on stage, each moving slowly in a dreamlike fashion, pained expressions on their faces. Suddenly they stop in their movement and begin to speak in unison, mimicking a police officer delivering bad news.
“There…There was…There was a…There was a bit…There was a bit of….There was a bit of a scuffle…and I’m…I’m sorry to say…I’m sorry to say he passed away…”
What follows is a powerful wake-up call to the injustices and institutional racism BAME individuals still face in today’s society.
Custody follows a family as they try and seek justice after Brian, an innocent young black man, loses his life in a police cell after being detained during a stop and search. Written by Tom Wainwright and inspired by Urban Wolf’s own experiences and Migrant Media documentaries on deaths in police custody, the play explores the barriers Brian’s loved ones come up against as they try to uncover the truth and hold those responsible for his death accountable. Though Brian isn’t on stage himself, his presence is felt constantly through anecdotes from his mother (Muna Otaru), sister (Ewa Dina), brother (Urban Wolf) and fiancé (Rochelle James), who at times also provide him with a voice. His family, each carrying a bag representing their grief, are struggling to come to terms with his death as they try to get answers.
Director Gbemisola Ikumelo combines choreographed movements (courtesy of Sara Dos Santos) with rhythmic chorus to create a bold and imaginative piece of theatre which proves essential viewing, disturbing in places. Meanwhile Wainwright’s script is grimly realistic in its portrayal of a grieving family as they embark on a quest for the truth. There are odd moments of light relief dotted throughout, notably during a hospital scene in which Brian’s brother and sister use some colourful language in front of their mother, and these serve to make the darker scenes more impactful.
Fran Horler’s versatile set (based on Phil Newman’s design) is superb. In front of a wall lay floral tributes, teddy bears and football scarves, a reminder of the tragedy that has befallen a much-loved young man. The wall eventually opens up and reveals white, clinical-looking tiled walls and cupboards, which over the course of the play become a kitchen, morgue, hospital room and courthouse. Cut into each layer of the set is a silhouette of Brian’s head, a constant reminder of the hole he’s left in their lives. In addition Will Burgher’s lighting is used to great effect to create moments of gripping tension, most notably when the play explores Brian’s death.
The cast of four are exceptional in their roles, working well together to form a believable bond. As the head of the family Muna Otaru is compelling to watch with her moving portrayal of a grieving mother questioning her faith. Her desperation to contact her son through religious rituals is particularly heartbreaking. Rochelle James likewise excels as Brian’s fiancée, who feels left out from the family unit; while Ewa Dina is a breath of fresh air as the sister who’s forced to grow up quickly following her brother’s death as she takes it upon herself to seek justice for his death. The scene where she acts out Brian’s arrest where he’s stripped down to his underwear and handcuffed is one of the play’s most devastating moments. It’s during the latter half of the Custody that Urban Wolf really comes into his own, playing the resentful brother who’s tired of living in Brian’s shadow and rebels. His closing speech in particular is powerfully moving.
With more than 140 BAME individuals having died in custody in England and Wales since 1990 and stop and search operations by police up 400 percent last year, Custody is sadly a relevant but essential production. Combining a talented cast with a standout script and creative direction, Custody is an intense, brave and vital piece of theatre which is not to be missed.
Custody is playing at the Ovalhouse Theatre until Saturday 22 June 2019.
Photo credit: Custody