Review: Wildefire, Hampstead Theatre

“To them, we are nothing but a bunch of racist, sexist, overpaid thugs in uniform”

In what turned out to be my second Maria Aberg production in quick succession, I got something of a crash course in just why people talk about this director so excitedly. Here, she takes Roy Williams’ urban police thriller Wildefire and elides its scenes into a single downwards spiral as policewoman Gail Wilde takes on a South London posting but finds herself unprepared for the intense trials and tribulations of life in the Met.

Aberg and Williams do a magnificent job at conjuring a world that is at once innately distrustful of the police yet also guilty of inculcating that distrust. Out of the shadows of James Farncombe’s lighting and the nooks and crannies of Naomi Dawson’s open yet functional design, urban nightmares spill forth whether fighting football fans, council estate domestic abusers or the suffocating menace of disaffected hoodies with nothing to lose.

One genuinely disturbing moment sees them at their scavenging worst, demonstrating just what the police are up against sometimes, a near impossible situation for all concerned and agonisingly heartbreaking. But this is no apologia for the boys and girls in blue. Williams starts his play with Sir Robert Peel’s nine principles of policing, designed to underpin the conduct of all police officers in the then new Met force, and proceeds to explore how and if they fit into the modern world.

Lorraine Stanley’s Wilde, she of the nickname Wildefire, is a compelling central figure, her good intentions of honouring her grandfather’s own uniformed career soon corrupted by the shift from smalltown policing to the hostility of South London. And as her career suffers from bad decisions, so do does her home life as wife and mother come under strain in a vicious cycle of blame and anger and fear and hate.

The specifics of Williams’ writing might not always have the fiercest energy or the greatest insight but the cumulative effect of Aberg’s insistent direction has the terrible pull of a whirlpool, sucking everything into the darkness of the abyss. And it is this that makes Wildefire exciting to watch, reminding us that behind the institutional behemoth that weathers so much (often justified) criticism lies a whole world of individual sacrifice.

Running time: 85 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 29th November

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