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Trial by Tricycle Theatre

The Stephen Lawrence inquiry represents a watershed in the history of British race relations. Now, the team which made 'Srebrenica' has turned it into a play. Robert Butler followed its progress, from read-through to first night
The cast party after last Tuesday's press night of The Colour of Justice took place in a snazzy studio space upstairs at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, north-west London. It was close to midnight when I saw Neville Lawrence, the father of Stephen Lawrence, the young black man who was murdered near a bus stop in south-east London in 1993. A tallish figure, wearing an orange ribbon on his grey suit, Lawrence was standing near the door, chatting and smiling with a young white actor, Christopher Fox. In the play, Fox gives a vivid performance as the sullen, defiant Jamie Acourt, one of the five or six young white men accused of stabbing Lawrence's son. Seeing these two in conversation gave me a jolt. It was the strangest moment in an extraordinary evening.

As we walked into the theatre before the performance, there were sheets of papers with names attached to seats. It's standard practice at the Tricycle to put out sheets reserving seats for the critics. But this was the first production I've been to where the names on the seats - "Lawrence", "Brooks", "Mansfield" - corresponded with the names of the dramatis personae in the programme.

Before the play began, its director, Nicolas Kent, announced (to the puzzlement of some) that they were offering reduced-price training in basic first aid with St John's Ambulance. As the evening progessed, revealing in depth the failure of the police, it became clear why. As the evidence unfolded, I watched Joseph Alessi (whom I had last seen play one of the Marx Brothers in Animal Crackers) as Stephen Kamlish, one of the lawyers representing the Lawrence family. The man sitting directly in front of me, with the bald head and the thick neck, was Kamlish himself.

In the panel discussion that followed, chaired by newsreader Jon Snow, a member of the audience asked Michael Mansfield QC if he had been worried that the case would hurt his career. What made the question exceptional was that it was asked by Duwayne Brooks, the friend who was with Stephen Lawrence at the bus stop when the attack occurred. The principal witness, and one of the people whom the murder has hurt most, was putting a question of his own to counsel.

In the foyer after the show, I saw Mansfield effusively greet Jeremy Clyde, the actor who plays Mansfield, in the foyer. How did Clyde get those gestures, the hands, the way he adjusted his tie? Clyde had the red tie and the red socks. But, as he admitted later on (after seeing his real-life subject), he hadn't got the right pen. At the party, I asked Christopher Fox how on earth he went about playing a young white racist thug accused of murder. He said that tonight, he'd only just started playing the character a new way. He decided to play Jamie Acourt as if he had been there at the scene, but hadn't stabbed Stephen Lawrence, and didn't know who did.

THREE WEEKS BEFORE, I had been at the first cast read-through of The Colour of Justice. It was held one evening just before Christmas in the same studio room where everyone was now eating curry, drinking wine and congratulating one another. The mood then was subdued. Twenty actors gathered round a table. On it were bottles of Highland Spring, Stabilo Boss pens, photocopies of cast lists and rehearsal sheets. Channel 4 was there too, filming the read-through. Cameras hadn't been allowed into the inquiry. They were making up for it now.

A Panorama with Neville Lawrence was planned (it was shown last Monday). Roger Graef is making a film about police reactions to the Lawrence inquiry. The Murder of Stephen Lawrence, a two-hour film with Marianne Jean-Baptiste, an Oscar nominee (from Secrets and Lies) as Doreen Lawrence and Hugh Quarshie as Neville Lawrence, will be shown in the spring. Channel Four's Hoping for a Miracle (broadcast tonight) follows Neville Lawrence through 1998. Both films have been co-produced by Yvette Vanson, Mansfield's wife. There was so much TV interest in the Tricycle production that Nicolas Kent had to cancel the dress rehearsal to allow film crews in to shoot extracts. In the panel discussion on the first night, Jon Snow urged the audience to e-mail Alan Yentob to make a film of this production. The story keeps growing. Mansfield announced the date of "a civil rights march", to be held in London on 20 March.

Sir William Macpherson's inquiry - which reports next month - examines the incompetence, collusion, corruption and racism (conscious and unconscious) that led to the five or six white youths escaping justice. The question for many people is whether the inquiry will pick on the "bad apples" in the police force, and focus the blame on individual officers, or whether it will find that the Metropolitan Police has to answer charges of "institutional racism".

In his opening remarks at the read-through, Nicolas Kent said, "I tried to resist doing this." The Tricycle have staged three other tribunals. The first, in 1994, was Half the Picture, a dramatisation of the Scott inquiry into Arms to Iraq. Two years later, to mark the 50th anniversary, they did an edited version of the 1946 Nuremberg trials, and then later that year, with Srebenica, they presented evidence given at the War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague. The Tricycle Theatre has become the Tribunal Theatre.

Many of the actors have been in the other trials. Some have risen slowly through the ranks. One, as Kent pointed out, "was a stenographer on at least two of our productions and now gets to say something". One advantage of this sort of production, according to Kent, is that with all the paperwork on the desks, "you don't have to learn lines". This turns out to be not quite true if you are short-sighted and play a character who doesn't wear glasses. Another is that "no acting is required". Of course, this is the hardest kind of acting. The budget is tight. What you are encouraged to bring to each performance is your own suit. ("These were very suited gentlemen.") There are so many in the cast that even if it sells out, it will lose money. There are only a handful of black performers in the cast. Mrs Lawrence gets five lines, Mr Lawrence gets none.

The script is by the journalist Richard Norton-Taylor, who also edited Half the Picture and Nuremberg. For The Colour of Justice, he has chosen 100 pages from more than 10,000 pages of transcript. The excerpts come from the first half of the inquiry, held at Hannibal House, at south London's Elephant and Castle. Later, Sir William Macpherson went to other cities to hear representations on wider issues of policing and racism. It's the investigation, and the investigations into the investigation, that Macpherson is investigating.

At the first read-through, it was a jolt again to see some of these actors take on yet another real-life role. A few chairs along from me sat Thomas Wheatley, who played William Waldegrave in Half the Picture and the Auschwitz Commandant in Nuremberg. He plays the Crown Prosecutor Howard Youngerwood. At the end of the table sat Michael Culver, who plays Sir William Macpherson. He played Sir Nicholas Lyell in Half the Picture and Albert Speer in Nuremberg. To my right sat Jeremy Clyde, who was playing Mansfield. In Half the Picture, he had played Alan Clark with a memorable glint and drawl. When he referred approvingly to the "elasticity" of the government guidelines, he made it sound like a suspender belt that might go ping.

As you listen for a couple of hours to a story that's been regularly reported (bit by bit) in the papers, it makes a different impact. You see clearly how the sequence of events must appear to the Lawrences. Some of the evidence is appalling. A surveillance videotape records the suspects using the most extreme racist language imaginable. The evidence of two of the suspects - Jamie Acourt and David Norris - has been included in the script, but so far only one of the parts has been cast. "I don't think you need Norris," says Michael Culver, after the read-through is over. "Jesus."

THREE WEEKS LATER, and they had created a compelling production. With these tribunals, subject-matter comes first, which makes for the most effective kind of political theatre. We hear the evidence and reach our own conclusions. Kent's production achieves a documentary authenticity that's more telling than TV documentaries. The transcripts have been edited, but there is no editorialising (no close-ups, pans, or cutaways). We are drawn in by the absence of theatricality. Actors whisper to each other when someone else is talking. James Woolley, who plays Edmund Lawson, counsel to the inquiry, can get up and squeeze past Alessi, playing Kamlish, while Alessi is in the middle of cross-examining a witness. No one looks up. As Lawson, Woolley gives an immaculate performance, quick but unhurried, teasing out the evidence ("just bear with me if you will"), as if filleting a fish. This contrasts sharply with Clyde's Mansfield, who emerges as the Jeremy Paxman of the inquiry, stroking his forehead with his index finger as he shifts his eyes away from the police officers and heaps on the scorn: "Do you think you are totally unreliable?" Emotions are strongly present, but they always take second place to argument.

This authenticity blurs the boundaries between real life and theatre. When Macpherson tells the inquiry that they can take a 20-minute break, the audience has a 20-minute interval. At the end of the inquiry, Macpherson asks everyone present at Hannibal House to stand for a minute's silence, and the whole audience at the Tricycle stands up. Many people have suggested that this production be televised. It ought to be. But first, it has to have a longer run in the theatre. It's here - a live audience watching a reconstruction - that it has a unique impact. If the National booked The Colour of Justice for a run, it would bring in an entirely new audience to that building and send out a powerful signal.

Most of all, The Colour of Justice demonstrates the role played in our society by unconscious racism. The Colour of Justice isn't about a few bent coppers. It's about how white Britain treats black Britain. As a black woman said to me in the interval. "It is not enough for a white person to say, 'I am not racist'. You have ask yourself if other people find you racist."

Tricycle, NW6 (0171 328 1000), to 6 February. 'Hoping for a Miracle': 8-9pm, Channel 4, tonight. The Stephen Lawrence Trust, c/o Arthur Timothy Associates, St John's Hall, 9 Fair Street, London SE1 2XA.

Robert Butler's theatre review is on page 7