Roy Williams began his playwriting career at Stratford East and he returns "home" with this vivid, colloquial and raucous update on the police and criminal classes in downtown Kingston; that’s Kingston, Jamaica, not Kingston, Surrey.
The show marks the stage debut, too, of golden-toothed Goldie who, despite a programme biography describing him as "music pioneer, contemporary/graffiti artist, drum & bass icon, DJ, actor and producer", doesn’t pull rank in a very good cast but takes his place as a suspect and gang leader, mostly confined to a police cell.
A British tourist has been murdered, and Clint Dyer‘s hilarious all-male production opens with an incomprehensible rumble of threats, violence, imprecations and gun waving – and that’s inside the police station; God knows what’s happening on the streets outside.
Soon afterwards, two of the policemen are kidnapped and the play then swings between the station and the hideaway on Ultz’s sleek and functional design, as brother turns on brother, blame comes round to the front door of the law, and a well-meaning British policeman with Jamaican roots, sent over by the Met to help on the investigation, finds himself under fire and cultural enquiry.
Two screens on either side of the stage carry surtitles in English which serve a double function: as a humorous editorial commentary on the "corrupted" English street slang and Jamaican patois being spoken on the stage, and as a helpful "translation" for the theatre’s non Anglo-Caribbean patrons; Williams’s world must seem as exotically foreign to them as the Russians singing Prince Igor at the Coliseum do to a British audience.
And there are powerful support performances, too, from Charles Venn and Ashley Chinn, while Derek Elroy, who has lately appeared in One Man, Two Guvnors at the Haymarket, makes a great impression as the conflicted James, awkward in his suit and wilting as he’s somehow held responsible for The X Factor on British television.
A lot of the play is a comic dissection of alpha male status in a self-regarding male culture, which might make it controversial in some quarters. But when the danger signals flash, Williams releases the tension with some great put-down or feat of one-upmanship; and there are two filthy narrative jokes along the English, Jamaican and Bajan Creole demarcation lines that are greeted with a crack of laughter you could probably hear on the other side of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
Kingston 14 runs at Theatre Royal, Stratford East until 26 April 2014