Theatre: Guilt in all its subtle shades

IT IS a rare night at the theatre that begins with the director announcing that the price of the ticket includes a concessionary rate for taking a basic St John Ambulance course in first aid, or that ends with a minute's intense communal silence in remembrance of a dead youth whose murderers have, scandalously, yet to be brought to justice. Scrupulously directed by Nicolas Kent from transcripts edited by Richard Norton-Taylor, The Colour of Justice is an enormously potent, staged re-enactment of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. First aid is stressed because the police's first dereliction of duty at the scene of that crime was a failure to give his stabbed, bleeding body proper medical attention.

The piece is in the noble tradition of the Tricycle Theatre's similar staging of the "arms to Iraq" Scott inquiry and the Nuremberg trials. In the former, the cock-eyed Alice Through the Looking Glass logic of the ministers provoked a kind of delighted intellectual outrage. But there was nothing exultant about the snorts of sickened laughter produced here by the parade of grim-faced, edgy and occasionally furious witnesses from the police, with their refrain of "I don't remember", their seemingly institutional tendency to mislay things permanently and their apparent difficulty with even the concept of racism.

The unpatronising performances are careful not to make these figures animated "wanted" posters: the colour of culpability comes in subtly different shades. But the cross-examinations conjure up an almost farcically sordid world of corrupt collusion where, say, the key eyewitness can be put in the special "protection" of the very police officer who is professionally wooing the criminal father of a key suspect.

Why go to the theatre to see this? In his Independent on Sunday review of the "arms to Iraq" re-enactment, Irving Wardle put his finger on the value of such an exercise: "The act of framing this event on stage," he wrote, "puts it under a piercing light and renews the original sense of shock... it also reasserts the theatre's role as a supreme invention of democracy." It is, par excellence, theatre as an image of society confronting itself.

It is important, though, to guard against more-liberal-than-thou self- congratulation because one has participated in a collective ritual of indignation with a mixed-race audience. Indeed, the witness who moved me the most was the Irish Catholic, Conor Taaffe (beautifully played by Tim Woodward). A genuine Good Samaritan, he actually went to help Stephen Lawrence as he lay bleeding at the bus stop.

It is significant that this instinctively virtuous man was also the readiest to admit in court that, because the youths were black, he initially thought it was a trick to mug him. An awareness of the reflex racism within us is the first step to overcoming it. A good man is prepared to acknowledge it. The police, still denying institutional racism, decline to do so. That's the profound lesson of this excellent evening.

Paul Taylor

To 6 Feb. Booking: 0171-328 1000. A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper