I was covering the Edinburgh festivals in August when rioting and looting began in my home neighbourhood of Tottenham and spread first to other areas of London and then other cities in England. Consequently, this is not that awkward instance of reviewing a dramatisation of events I know first-hand. But I am familiar with the landscape depicted through much of the first half of Gillian Slovo’s verbatim-based piece, with the community voices recounting their experience of those occurrences, and also with the unarticulated and intangible dimensions behind them. I know when Slovo has conflated or ellipsed matters, when looters appear onstage with plunder which, modest though it is, is still too upmarket for Tottenham High Road. And we are all too accustomed to the plethora of voices passing comment on the overall phenomenon throughout the second half of this two-hour evening.
In a venue as steadfastly socially engaged as the Tricycle it was shocking and even a little disgusting to hear on press night a few examples of the kind of response that comes from middle-class spectators who think themselves safely insulated from the world depicted onstage. When one character mentioned at the beginning of his testimony that he lived in a flat above Carpetright (the store whose blazing shell provided one of the iconic images of the riots), the scattering of chuckles were not merely at the dramatic irony. The isolated snicker that greeted the mere appearance as a character of Diane Abbott MP was simply knee-jerk prejudice. Elsewhere, though, the laughter of derision is well deserved, especially as Tory minister Michael Gove (played with confusingly Tony Blair-like hand gestures) seems to deny any political responsibility for the social and economic backdrop to the chaos. And it testifies to the venue’s reputation in this field that a number of the voices onstage are those of folk who, having heard about the project, initiated contact themselves to give their own testimony.
The Trike’s outgoing artistic supremo Nicolas Kent directs with the skill he invariably brings to such verbatim productions, and a 14-strong cast including Steve Toussaint, Cyril Nri and Dona Croll represent a range of figures in politics, policing, community and sometimes just in hoodies. Each interviewee is asked to characterise the rioters in three words: “opportunist” crops up more than once, but so does “frustrated” and above all “lost”. As regards efforts to reclaim them, the still gap-toothed High Road speaks to me of that continuing deficit every day.