The popular chant from Elland Road Kop in the late 1960s – "The river Aire is chilly and deep, Olu-wa-le; Never trust the Leeds police, Olu-wa-a-le" – doesn't actually feature in The Hounding of David Oluwale, Oladipo Agboluaje's adaptation of Kester Aspden's harrowing book. But it was sung to constables on the terraces at the time of the Scotland Yard investigation into the systematic hounding of the eponymous Nigerian immigrant. A stone's throw from West Yorkshire Playhouse stands Millgarth Police Station, where arrest sheets describe his nationality simply as "wog", and where Oluwale was locked up, beaten up and cruelly sent up.
Dawn Walton's vivid production for Eclipse Theatre spares us the sight of Sergeant Kitching and Inspector Ellerker urinating on the vagrant or setting fire to the papers he slept under. But that in no way lessens the shocking impact of his death by drowning – whether Oluwale was pushed by the policemen or, in desperation, jumped – in the river near the city-centre doorways he called home. That city was also desperate to present a shiny new image to the world, and a tramp didn't fit into that image. So much for Oluwale's belief in the benevolent, civilising nature of England.
It's when a body is fished out of the Aire that Agboluaje's gripping stage version begins. Having a dead person come alive is never easy. In Daniel Francis's unflinching depiction of a young man gradually worn down by long stints in a mental hospital, in prison or on the streets, Oluwale is made larger than life. As the flashbacks to his childhood at the end of colonial rule in Lagos reveal, he was full of hopes and dreams.
On an ingenious set by Emma Wee, Oluwale's life and death are unfolded in short scenes and sometimes rather stilted dialogue, driven largely by chief investigator Perkins. Agboluaje doesn't tell us that he later had a breakdown, but there's a hint of that in the nervous intensity Ryan Early brings to the role. Out of a cast in which everyone plays many roles, Clare Perkins gives fine support as Oluwale's Maa'mi, and Laura Power is especially touching.
That the play works as both incisive social comment and emotional drama – and warning – is a credit to all those involved in bringing David Oluwale to life again.
To 21 February (0113-213 7700), then touring to 4 April ( www.eclipsetheatre.org.uk)
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies