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WILDEFIRE – Hampstead Theatre, London.

Wildefire, Hampstead Theatre, London

Photo: Ellie Kurttz

London is burning. The streets of Tottenham, Brixton, Enfield and Wood Green are alight as peaceful protest turns to violent protest turns to ruthless opportunism. Those who recall the 2011 riots will be under no illusions about the reality of serving in the modern Met, yet Roy Williams’ new play does convey uncomfortable truths about the way in which a police uniform turns people into targets of rampant verbal and physical abuse. Rather than protecting victims, officers too often become victims.

It’s a long way from the idealistic principles laid down by 19th-century Prime Minister Robert Peel, who urged the use of minimal force only when all other means have failed, and hoped that the police might offer “service and friendship” to those they served. Williams’ protagonist, Gail Wilde (Lorraine Stanley), is rather more circumspect, but the young copper still arrives at her new south London posting eager to play by the rules and “do good”. This wide-eyed transfer soon discovers that there are no moral certainties here: officers bribe, lie and assault, all in the name of the law, while those they aim to help often resist it, most notably perennial domestic abuse victim Kristal (Tara Hodge).

Gail – nicknamed “Wildefire” because of her temper – meets her match in partner Spence (Ricky Champ), whose slippery ethics result in two shockingly violent incidents, one in which he is the perpetrator, the other victim. Williams may be exploring a profession with an increasingly complex rulebook, but the universe of his play is more straightforward: actions carry weighty and immediate consequences. Gail’s aping of Spence’s cynical, renegade style leads to a spectacular breakdown, with career compromised and personal life wrecked.

Williams’ use of tragic epic structure fights against the rather strange decision to make this a fast-paced 90-minute piece, and both choices battle with the glimmers of naturalistic, nicely observed interaction. Among the three competing plays, the epic wins out, mainly thanks to Maria Aberg’s operatic production, with the human story impaired by hasty characterisation and lightning-fast developments. Gail’s instant spiral strains credulity, and her relationships with her out-of-work banker husband and invisible teenage daughter are fatally underwritten.

Gail’s colleagues are given a little more colour, and a strong cast fills in the gaps as best they can. Champ gives a memorable performance as swaggering, impetuous Spence, Fraser James brings dry wit to the world-weary sergeant mired in office politics, and Sharlene Whyte’s disillusioned officer supplies the most recognisably emotive moment as she funnels grief through crackling fury. Stanley does a good job of negotiating an accelerated timeline as Gail travels from keen rookie to broken veteran, and lands some of Williams’ sketchy gender politics exploration through sheer force of will.

The most successful aspect of the show is Aberg’s apocalyptic vision: as Gail’s life is smashed into jagged fragments, so the world around her descends into the abyss. Hooded figures prowl the stage or peer down at the action from above, crouched like predators primed to spring. They cease to be individuals and become an amorphous mass, terrifying in its casual cruelty. There’s great support from James Farncombe’s lighting and Naomi Dawson’s raw set, making this a genuinely chilling space in which to witness chaos unfold.

Sadly, the emotional life of the play never matches that power, pace robbing it of pathos. The rapid fluidity of Aberg’s direction exacerbates the problem, with scenes melting into one another before they can fully land, or lost in the atmospheric gloom of her netherworld. We’re intellectually convinced of the scale of the challenge facing the police, and of the disintegration of our society, but the people involved remain indistinct. That’s a major problem for a play that professes to give the police a human face. Instead, Wildefire is blazing editorial, with individual officers swallowed up by the smoke.

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Reviewed 12/11/14/

By Marianka Swain

6th-29th November 2014
Hampstead Theatre, London, NW3.

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