RANDOM, Downstairs Belvoir at Belvoir St, 18 October-11 November 2018. Photography by Daniel Boud: above and below – Zahra Newman
Random: unplanned, arbitrary, haphazard, chance, accidental, casual, indiscriminate, and so on – all words to explain the inexplicable. In this instance, in a one-act play by the black British playwright debbie tucker green, it’s part of a “random act of violence”, a description of an act that’s rarely random or inexplicable when placed in context.
The context for the playwright was an outbreak of teenage knife crime in London in 2007-2008. Then, 40 of 55 victims over the two years were young black men and boys. PM Tony Blair controversially laid responsibility at the door of the capital’s black communities, but police and other official responses over time pointed to much wider and deeper social problems.
Meanwhile, Random was staged in 2008, as described by Lyn Gardner in The Guardian, “to christen the Royal Court’s pop-up theatre, in a formerly empty unit in a south London shopping centre.” The intent was to take recognisable and relatable theatre to the (black) community itself and tucker green’s short play was well received.
Meanwhile, the violence of a decade ago has escalated. There have been 118 murders so far in London this year, including 73 knife and 12 shootings. This past weekend (3-4 November) there were four knife murders of males aged 15, 17, 22 and 38 and “random” was not a word used to describe them. The death of the 15-year-old in particular capturing the headlines: stabbed at a take-away chicken shop; so mundane, so ordinary, so random. Except it cannot be random if a person goes out into the world armed with a knife; somewhere, some day, that knife will be used.
And that’s where tucker green’s play continues to shine a very particular light on this phenomenon. Rather than strew blood and bodies about the stage, she focuses instead on the family of a teenager, killed one morning even as he sassed his elder sister with text messages. There is no visible violence, instead what unfolds in 50 intense minutes is the emotional brutality and wounds caused to the boy’s mother, father and sister, as well as the collateral damage that spreads in a widening circle of grief and bewilderment.
Director Leticia Cáceres describes Random as “a monologue poem for four distinct voices, Sister, Brother, Mum, Dad” and playing all the roles in one seamless, characterful act, is Zahra Newman and she is remarkable. A gesture, a turn of the head and a physical slump, and she is Mother: worldweary, full of love for her kids, exasperated with her old man and a voice and words rich in the patois of the Caribbean.
A moment later and she’s Sister – upright, young and spirited, an office worker whose irritation at her colleagues and the dreariness of their office lives is burnished with knowingness and sardonic humour. The two males: Brother and Dad, are small masterpieces of physical and vocal observation and through tucker green’s unsentimental and truthful poetry we can smell Brother’s socks and unwashed boy-ness; feel Dad’s battered pride and surly recognition of his place in life.
The Downstairs theatre is utilised to the full as Newman prowls and prances, interacting with the audience as the stories play out. Designer Jacob Nash gives her all the space yet sketches in south London, a bedroom and a flight of stairs via a grubby whitewashed wall and outlines. It’s given dynamism by lighting designer Rachel Burke as she punctuates time and defines place through precise changes and washes of light. And a minimal and atmospheric soundscape by The Sweats adds another layer to a polished gem of a production.
Catching up with Random late in its run meant knowing that it’s been a big hit with critics and audiences, yet it lives up to the hype and more. Cáceres and Newman have already done a tour of the play but this is its big city debut and they are a sensational team. The director’s deft hand keeps movement flowing and natural and the focus never wavers for a moment, despite the intricacies of the text. Newman is mesmerising as she switches characters and place – apparently without effort. Her restraint and complexity make for an exhilarating yet heartrending experience – one not to be missed. Recommended without reservation.