Review: Luce, Southwark Playhouse

“There’s a space between truth and deception that isn’t a lie”

Even in the handful of years since JC Lee (who has since gone on to write for television shows Looking, Girls and How To Get Away With Murder) initially wrote Luce in 2012, our worldview when it comes to terrorism has shifted considerably. Atrocities such as the Boston Marathon bombing and the attacks on Paris have focused fear anew about threats from both within and without our borders but it is the former on which Lee alights here. Luce was adopted at age 7 from an unspecified African country and raised by all-American couple Amy and Peter into a high-school hero complete with academic prospects and sporting prowess, so his teacher Harriet Carter is then perturbed to find cracks in the veneer.

An assignment in support of a right-wing terrorist flags her attention (no need for the Prevent strategy in the US…) and a surreptitious search of his locker reveals a stash of illegal fireworks. But conscious of the PR implications of besmirching the name of the school’s star student and problematising the perfect ideal of integration that he represents, she calls in his parents under the radar and begins a series of prevarications and half-measures to dealing with the problem. For despite his circumstances, Luce is still just a teenage boy, dealing with all of the pressures that young men face at such a critical juncture in their lives, and the perils in treating him differently soon become all too real.

In Simon Dormandy’s excellent, detailed, production, Luce acknowledges the difficulties that society has here. Jargonistic language has been evolved to let people feel better about being seen to be doing something – Harriet mentions that the school has “given him a toolkit”, Facebook-friendly Amy talks of the need to “change their parenting frequency” – but Lee never loses sight of the truth that it comes down to the decisions that we make. Harriet’s choice to treat this locker infringement differently to that of Luce’s pot-smoking friend – his scholarship dreams now in ruins – is crucial, the powerful conflict skilfully evoked by Natasha Gordon; Amy opting to forge on with blinkered determination a testament to her force of will, if not her judgement, a striking turn from a fully committed Mel Giedroyc . 

And at the heart of the maelstrom is Luce himself, his intelligence wielded as a weapon as he exploits the language of those who would accuse him for his own means, keeping everyone – including the audience – very much on their toes as to whether he’s malicious or misunderstood. Martins Imhangbe delivers a chilling performance of physical presence and psychological depth that is simply delicious in its unpredictability. There’s good support from Nigel Whitmey as his somewhat bemused father and a short but superb contribution from Elizabeth Tan as a schoolmate, her story a further investigation into the nefarious practices of teenage boys but also the problems in conflicting narratives.

Dick Bird’s intelligent design strips back superfluous detail to focus us entirely on the relationships here and mirrored panels on the back wall reflect back on how difficult it is to know whether what we’re seeing and hearing is the truth. A fascinating piece of drama for our times and a playwright to look out for, assuming he’s not now lost to the world of television.

Running time: 90 minutes (without interval)
Photo: Tristram Kenton

Booking until 2nd April

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