One of the strengths of the tiny Finborough Theatre in west London is that it is able to closet its audience, at close quarters, with the action. In the case of Sarah Grochala’s S-27 this proximity plays a part: it confines us with the actors in a tatty corner of an old school, now pressed into service as an ante-chamber to a torture and execution room. The play won Amnesty International’s first Protect the Human playwriting award for its depiction of summary justice and the brutalising effect of violence upon the perpetrators. It is a laudable and quietly effective drama that illustrates the dehumanising effect of dehumanising other people.
The play’s starting point is the notorious S-21 prison in Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge imprisoned, tortured and murdered thousands of people. Before they went on to the horrors that awaited them, the prisoners were photographed by a young soldier, Nhem En. Grochala’s play imagines the work of someone like Nhem En. The prison here becomes S-27, the photographer becomes May, a committed young woman, whose beliefs in “the organisation” and its cause are gradually undermined by the people who come before her lens. A child, a young mother and a childhood friend are among those whom May has to photograph and she finds it increasingly difficult to view them as objectively as her camera does. But while May struggles, her colleague June has no such qualms, but exhibits a ruthless pragmatism.
The play’s strength is the fact that it keeps the focus tight and doesn’t tell you what particular fate awaits each prisoner: that is left to you to imagine. Its weaknesses are in the rather schematic plot twist that makes May jump ship, which doesn’t really convince and produces a rather mawkish monologue about love, and in the slight uncertainty about the setting: is this Cambodia in the 1970s or a place like Cambodia in the 1970s? Nailing it specifically might make it more powerful, and its universal message would still hold.
But Stephen Keyworth’s production is tight and sharp, and the performances are impressive, with Pippa Nixon as the intense, troubled May and Brooke Kinsella as the pretty but hard-faced June. The remainder of the ensemble work swiftly to flesh out those haunting, anonymous photographs and give us a feeling for the real people who found themselves plunged into a horrific nightmare. ★★★☆☆