The Riots, Tricycle Theatre, London
Thursday 24 November 2011
Not for the first time, the Tricycle Theatre has stepped in where the authorities feared to tread.
Stung by the Government's refusal to hold a full public enquiry into the August public disorder, artistic director Nicolas Kent commissioned Gillian Slovo to compile a verbatim piece on the events and their possible causes. The result is a taut, illuminating two-hour show, boiled down from a mass of interview material, in which we hear the riots described and debated by a diverse range of voices – police, rioters, the owner of a burnt-out flat, lawyers, politicians and social workers.
Michael Gove tells us that his wife thinks of the riots as a Rorschach blot in which bleeding-heart liberals and bring-back-the-birch reactionaries see what they want to find. By going behind the news reports into the individual experiences of participants and observers, The Riots seeks to free us from the trap of our personal prejudices. With the aid of film footage and animated maps, the witness accounts in the first half illustrate how local police insensitivity in Tottenham was the spark that turned a peaceful vigil into a bonfire. But we also learn of the significant pressures on the police themselves, holding back for fear of being thought racist, and hampered by farcical difficulties as when reinforcements from the North got lost because they had driven down in superannuated vans with no sat-nav that they rather hoped would be destroyed in the disturbances and replaced from Met coffers.
"You've got the legitimate anger. And then obviously you have people that jump on that anger," declares a Tottenham-based youth worker. The speculative second half offers a variety of views on the underlying causes, seen in the wider context of mass youth unemployment, the widening gap between rich and poor, and entrenched police attitudes towards young blacks.
At one end, there are folk like Mr Gove who castigates the rioters as a "vicious lawless and immoral minority" and who cannot see why the state should pay for youth services when you can join the scouts for free. At the other, there's the perhaps patronisingly liberal attitude that says you can hardly expect deprived youth not to turn into looters in a world where greedy bankers and MPs set such an appalling example. While its sympathies are evidently left-leaning, this powerfully performed piece makes you think without making your mind up for you.
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