The Riots, Tricycle, London New World Order, Shoreditch Town Hall, London The Kitchen Sink, Bush, London

Slovo's witnesses to anarchy pip Parliament to the post

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The Independent Culture

In 2012, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee will complete its inquiry into this August's anarchy, which spread like fire across London and to other English cities.

Meanwhile, the Tricycle is pipping Parliament to the post with The Riots, a fascinating documentary theatre piece compiled by Gillian Slovo from spoken evidence, and directed by Nicolas Kent.

Slovo's witnesses (played by actors in a subdued, naturalistic style) include anonymous looters and named arrestees, police officers, local residents, community leaders and Westminster politicians – Iain Duncan Smith and Diane Abbott among them. There is no dramatic action or dialogue in the traditional sense. Yet the interlaced monologues – punctuated with flashes of news footage – construct a tense, detailed account of how the trouble escalated in Tottenham, after the police shooting of Mark Duggan.

Though complex, The Riots is clear about what went wrong, helped by a projected street map. Locals explain how the police, having offended Duggan's family and failed to communicate with peaceful protesters, mispositioned roadblocks and then stood back. Amazed to get away with hurling fruit at patrol cars, angry youths were emboldened to torch the vehicles. That is recounted by the shocked yet insightful community campaigner Stafford Scott (played by excellent Steve Toussaint). We then get the riot police's perspective.

As well as being perturbing, the events described are sometimes surreally funny – not least the marauders seen cooking in McDonald's. The piece also raises far-reaching questions. Were these primarily race riots, inflamed by prejudiced stop-and-search practices? Or was the robbing a response to hyper-consumerism and the widening gap between rich and poor, an echo of the immorality of expense-fiddling MPs and bonus-hoarding bankers? This is a society of looters at every level, observes Labour MP John McDonnell (Alan Parnaby), an analysis that isn't new, though its urgency is potent. Several characters conclude that, unless we tackle the root of our social malaise, it could all happen again.

That said, you'd run riot on pain of death in New World Order, a site-specific production that meshes five political shorts by Harold Pinter. Following acclaim at the Brighton Festival, the young company Hydrocracker has transferred (with Barbican backing) to the former Shoreditch Town Hall. Smiling spin doctors usher audience members along brightly lit corridors. The Minister for Cultural Integrity (Hugh Ross) steps up to a podium garlanded with BBC microphones. Soft-spoken, he insists there is no contradiction between his new post and his service as head of the secret police. Killing dangerous children and raping women is all part of the educational process.

Following Ross into his plush office, we watch him maintain a silky-smooth demeanour as he torments a detained intellectual (Richard Hahlo). Then we're herded down into a maze of grim basement chambers where, lined up with women in black, peasant garb, we're told our language has been banned. We glimpse Ross again, frostily overseeing horrible fates for Halho's spouse and child. Psychotic squaddies torture a hooded victim.

Such production details bring Pinter's nightmare state chillingly up to date. Nonetheless, the portrayal of totalitarian baddies is sometimes less than subtle, and the intensity of each playlet is diminished by intercutting and interruptions to allow for the promenading.

In The Kitchen Sink, job prospects are bleak for Billy (Ryan Sampson) and feisty Sophie (Leah Brotherhead), siblings from a Yorkshire backwater. Their dreams are going down the drain, and their dad's milk float is falling to bits as well.

Tom Wells, the Bush's young associate writer, turns this into comforting comedy, tensions giving way to supportive hugs and new starts. Though The Kitchen Sink at first seems disappointingly cheesy and formulaic, by the end, Wells's characters prove touching, especially Lisa Palfrey and Steffan Rhodri as the stressed but salt-of-the-earth parents.

'The Riots' (020-7328 1000) to 10 Dec; 'New World Order' (020-7638 8891) to 11 Dec; 'The Kitchen Sink' (020-8743 5050) to 17 Dec

Next Week:

Kate Bassett catches Lenny Henry and his twin in The Comedy of Errors

Theatre Choice

The Pitmen Painters, Lee Hall's touching play about a group of Northumberland miners (right) who won acclaim as artists in the 1930s – has extended its London run at The Duchess to 14 April. The RSC's exuberant family musical Matilda – with songs by Tim Minchin – is at the Cambridge Theatre, London (booking to 12 Feb).

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