Kingston 14, Theatre Royal Stratford East, London – review

Aficionados of Scandinavian television crime thrillers, such as The Killing and The Bridge, are used to keeping one eye on the knotty plot and the other on the subtitles. However, it is a novelty to find yourself doing something similar in the theatre for a play by a British playwright. But Roy Williams’ fizzing new cop-shop drama, set in Kingston, Jamaica, is written in such a strong Jamaican dialect that the entire play is translated on surtitles throughout. Indeed the only English character, James (Derek Elroy) – a black Metropolitan Police officer sent over to assist on a case – has trouble following the plot. Unfortunately for him, he doesn’t have the benefit of simultaneous translation.

Linguistic misunderstandings are not the only barrier for James. A nice open-and-shut case – victim murdered; suspect in custody – turns into a nightmare of corruption and compromise. It soon looks as though the messy links between police, politicians and criminals will end up with prize gangster, Joker (played with glinting, taciturn menace by drum and bass icon Goldie) being allowed to walk free. The situation builds to a crisis, where the choice is to act within the rules, and risk a lot of casualties, or turn a blind eye and save lives.

Williams spins a very good yarn and the play is peppered with comic misunderstandings and outrageously rude gags (which land perfectly, despite flying in through translation). But behind it is a sorrowful depiction of the mire of endemic corruption and the near impossibility of moral probity. And the bigger question, for Williams, is how did this happen? He draws in the histories, personal and national, that have led the characters and the country to this point. This is not always successful: he has to twist the plot to get in some points and several speeches about Jamaican history sit awkwardly in the dialogue. But still, this is a gripping and sympathetic portrayal of a country toiling to find its future and of men struggling to find a role.

Director Clint Dyer brings a driving energy to the production, savouring both the comic chaos of an early brawl and the intimate despair of a whispered conversation between a police officer (Charles Venn) and a scared young gangster (Gamba Cole). A fine cast skilfully surf the changing moods in the play, with Brian Bovell as a compromised police officer and Trevor Laird as his world-weary superior particularly touching.

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