The Hounding of David Oluwalepremiered at West Yorkshire Playhouse at the start of its Eclipse Theatre tour, has plenty going for it, notably a shocking and dramatic real-life subject and a superb central performance, but somehow the impact is less than expected, especially in the first half. It should be a harrowing experience, but it seldom is, though quite possibly the edge will develop as the tour progresses.
Oladipo Agboluaje’s adaptation of Kester Aspden’s book is based on events in Leeds in 1969. A vagrant, David Oluwale, was hounded to his death by two senior police officers who, after an investigation, became the only British policemen to be tried for the death of a man of African descent – a fact from the programme which I find almost more disturbing than the action on stage.
That action begins dramatically with the body being dragged from the River Aire, then, as Perkins, the Scotland Yard investigator, approaches, David springs to life and takes Perkins on a conducted tour of his life: from Nigeria to Leeds, from carefree irresponsibility to overt prejudice. In 1953, a catastrophic turning-point occurs: a police beating is followed by arrest, diagnosis of schizophrenia and eight years of electric shock treatment at Menston Asylum. From Menston he emerges limping, alienated, a suitable case for vagrancy and victimhood.
The narrative is allusive and non-sequential, but in Dawn Walton’s production the story-line is clear enough, even if the nuances are blurred by the lack of variation in the bleakly functional set (the text reveals a homely little café to be the King Edward Hotel) and the multiple doubling of parts (over 40 roles for eight actors).
As David, Daniel Francis gives a vibrant and compelling performance, from the gleefully ambitious, all-dancing, all-joking youth to the agonised victim, plus the wise commentator from beyond the grave. His scenes with Ryan Early’s Perkins, a finely judged study of controlled intensity, are particularly challenging. However, the personalities of Sergeant Kitching and Inspector Ellerker are much less defined and their menace muted, though the actual beatings and kickings are well handled (fights by Kate Waters).
Many of the characters are anonymous, but a resourceful cast seizes any opportunities – Early, for instance, has a nice little cameo as the desk sergeant on the fringe of the action – with notably impressive performances from Clare Perkins, excellent throughout and especially moving and passionate as David’s mother, and Richard Pepple, an oasis of warmth and rationality as Kayode, David’s occasional benefactor.