Wildefire (Hampstead Theatre)
Roy Williams' new show looking at the Met police is a "blowtorch of a play"
Theatre is not life, nor should it be, but there's absolutely nothing in Roy Williams's latest look at the Metropolitan Police force to suggest that these things don't happen, these things are not said, and not said in this particular way.
Wildefire is a blowtorch of a ninety-minute play showing the police in action during a time of civic upheaval (Williams says he's felt very differently about the Old Bill since the Tottenham riots in 2011), gangland ascendancy, knife crime and increased domestic violence.
At its centre is a white woman police officer – palpably doing a "man's job" – newly arrived from Horsham in Sussex to test herself in the Met.
As played by the formidable Lorraine Stanley as a slightly softer version of Kathy Burke (who was in the audience last night), this character, Gail Wilde, gets involved, to put it mildly, in random violence on the streets and domestic violence behind doors.
This crosses over into what the Met itself disparagingly refers to as becoming a branch of the social services, but Gail's campaign of assistance to the bruised and battered Kristal (Tara Hodge) is an aspect of why she does the job: out of compassion and a desire to help. Williams seems to suggest that, elsewhere in the force, the job is merely about fire-hosing the unruly elements on the streets.
He's very good at making the flavour of demotic speech both ring true and illuminate the action, and Maria Aberg's charged-up production – designed by Naomi Dawson as a bleak urban arena of walkways and platforms, with the police station indicated with white tape on a floor plan – serves him well - except in one crucial respect: the acoustic has gone potty in this stripped back design, and much of the abrasive banter gets smothered in the void.
The play opens with the figure of Sir Robert Peel in cravat and topper listing his nine principles for the new Met in 1829. His key point was to maintain a good and trusting relationship with the public, something we seem to have lost, ironically underlined as a band of sinister hoodies encroach on the stage as he speaks.
The police themselves, including Ricky Champ's bullish Spence, Fraser James's over-eager Don and Cian Barry's over-committed Vince, are strained to breaking point, while Sharlene Whyte's Maxine mixes a bitter outpouring of job dissatisfaction with a gospel lament for a dying officer.
Gail's marriage to Danny Dalton's good-natured Sean comes under pressure, too. All this stress cannot be good for morale or efficiency. Williams's Jamaican police play Kingston 14 at Stratford East earlier this year was tighter and funnier, but this one is more urgent and depressing.