Review: State Red, Hampstead Downstairs

“I’m a black man shooting other black man for a living”

Whoop whoop, that’s the sound of da police, or at least a whole lotta police-related drama at the Hampstead Theatre, both upstairs and down. In the main house, Roy Williams’ Wildefire is examining life in the Met from the street level whilst downstairs, Atiha Sen Gupta makes a long awaited return with State Red, another new play looking at institutionalised racism in the force (and society at large too) right up to the highest level of Police Commissioner and asks just how far we’d go in the name of family.

White, living in Muswell Hill and in his 50s, it seems Richard is a shoo-in for the job. 36 years of service, a mixed marriage for the diversity card, schmoozing with all the right people, the only fly in the ointment is the return of his son Luke from a year AWOL after an incident at work. For he’s a copper too and after shooting a black unarmed teenager dead, has suffered something of a breakdown. With the inquest fast approaching, he’s threatening to smash through the party line with his own version of events even if doing so would ruin his father’s prospects.

Michael Jackson once sang that “it don’t matter if you’re black or white” but in a society that has never really managed to come to terms with its multiculturalism, it’s much more complicated than that. Gupta looks at the shades of grey inbetween right and wrong – even if Luke were guilty of something more than an accident, could not the potential benefit of his father’s appointment to a position of real influence not outweigh that? And that a racial epithet taunting Luke’s mixed-race heritage may have triggered the shooting further complicates the tangle of race relations that lies at the heart of so much tension.

The playwright is more successful in this than in offering a convincing portrayal of police guilt though. Douglas Rintoul’s artfully spare production has a pleasing directness but even this can’t disguise the lumpen dialogue that comes when Gupta is making her point here, the research too painfully obvious and the one-note of Luke’s delivery limits the character somewhat, despite Samuel Anderson’s best efforts (poor Danny Pink). Toby Wharton as his friend who shares his secret connects very well with him and Maxine Finch and Geoff Leesley fare well as his parents. The issues raised within State Red may feel like they deserve better writing and more space to breathe but it remains thought-provoking nonetheless.

Running time: 75 minutes (without interval)
Playtext cost: £5
Booking until 6th December

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