They can’t even be bothered to think of a decent title. Good thing too. The Riots, at the Trike, is a rush job, a gripping and pacey attempt to analyse the disturbances that engulfed Britain last August. Cops, criminals and community leaders have been interviewed by Gillian Slovo, who fashioned their statements into a dramatic investigation.
The riots might never have happened if more prudent tactics had been used at the start. The family of Mark Duggan, shot dead by police on 4 August, staged a demonstration outside Tottenham police station two days later. Police refused to speak to them, claiming that the independent investigation into Duggan’s death obliged them to remain tight-lipped. The family didn’t believe this. Senior officers seemed oblivious to the dangers represented by a suspicious death and a crowd of dissatisfied protesters. The Duggans went home shortly after 8 p.m. and events swiftly span out of control. Two police cars had been left empty on the main road. Kids began to pelt them with vegetables. The police did nothing. Emboldened, the kids smashed the windscreens and headlights. Again, the police did nothing. The cars were set on fire. Same response. And as authority slept, the riot awoke. During the next few days disorder spread across the country.
The mob was very far from mindless. By its own estimate, it was pursuing an equitable correction to numerous injustices. One rioter points out that if society is content to sanction the predations of bankers, and the expense-account pilferings of MPs, then it forfeits the right to castigate street mobs for demanding the same privileges. Gerald Kaufman’s widescreen TV, costing roughly 8,000 quid, is mentioned as morally indivisible from the ransacking of Comet.
The recession bears a measure of responsibility. With fewer people able to take holidays, the inner cities were heaving with populations of bored kids who would normally be overseas in August. As usual, aggressive policing and clumsy street-searches in the months before the riots are blamed for stoking resentment. Some riot officers felt they’d never seen such levels of ‘hatred towards the uniform’.
There are two sides to this. Stop-and-search is a provocation that youngsters subtly invite by dressing in ghetto daywear. Every kid knows that ‘a preppie look’, a suit and tie, will spare them the ordeal of the pavement pat-down and the kerbside pocket-rummage. So the youths are, to some extent, choosing these confrontations in order to celebrate their self-image as righteous innocents. That element of the debate needs as much emphasis as the pressure on police to use ‘respect’ and other elaborate courtesies while frisking a suspect. The production offers no answers but it’s a must-see show for anyone seeking some shred of reason behind the late-summer lunacy.
The Bush has reopened in brand-new premises. Instead of the old telephone kiosk, we’re in a capacious modern arena on the Uxbridge Road. Almost too capacious. The elaborate auditorium, apparently designed by an expert in three-dimensional chess, bamboozles the eye with interconnecting aisles and staircases, which take up lots of space that could have been used for good old seating. A pity, really, because Tom Wells’s hilarious new drama could probably sell every extra ticket available.
The Kitchen Sink is a family comedy set in some drizzlesome northern town where everyone is on the minimum wage or out of work. But the mood is refreshingly zany and upbeat. Dad is a milkman, steadily going bust, and looking for new employment. ‘There’s life after milk.’ His son, an openly gay art student obsessed with Dolly Parton, is apprehensive about starting college in London where ‘everyone wears ripped jeans. Life’s draughty enough.’
His sister, a ju-jitsu student, is dating a nerdy plumber, who lives alone with his dope-smoking grandmother. This quirky crew is presided over by a self-mocking matriarch, Kath, who calls herself ‘a hobbit’ and takes a perverse delight in her husband’s love of tool sheds and tinkering. ‘You know what he gave me last Valentines? A chainsaw.’
The play has a heart as warm as toast. The ensemble work is terrific and there are two performances to cherish in particular. Andy Rush, as the handsome plumber, manages to be sexy, butch and comically anxious all at once. Alone with his girlfriend-to-be, and hoping for a first kiss, he pulls off an amazing passage of physical comedy. I’ve never seen a man handle a potato masher with such epic quantities of self-doubt. And Lisa Palfrey is magnificent as the witty, magnanimous and long-suffering Kath. The play belongs to a great tradition of cordial northern comedy. And it offers the best sort of escapism: it takes you, with every familiarity, into the unexpected and unknown.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated December 3, 2011