Review: Random/Generations (Chichester Festival Theatre)

Tinuke Craig directs Debbie Tucker Green’s two plays in a double bill

Petra Letang in Random
Petra Letang in Random
© Manuel Harlan

The week when four young black men were shot on the streets of London – one of them fatally – and a month when a record 40,000 offences involving knives has been announced, there couldn't be a better or sadder time to stage Debbie Tucker Green's Random about the sudden, inexplicable death of a teenage boy.

That it was written ten years ago but feels just as relevant and crucial today says a lot about the prospects for far too many black youngsters in this country but also a lot about Tucker Green's writing which lands its savagely pertinent and heartbreaking points with the delicacy of a poem and the sharpness of a cry to arms.

It takes the form of a monologue. Or, more properly as I learnt from the programme, a monopolylogue, where one actor tells a story by slipping in and out of the voices of multiple characters. The actor here is Petra Letang and she is utterly astonishing. She doesn't simply impersonate the members of a family that is destroyed when their son is killed but embodies in the shift of an eye, a twitch of her hips or lips, a roll of her arms.

As sister, mother and brother talk us through the dreadful day, they become real to us to the point where we the audience, craning forward, are as devastated and surprised by the sudden death as the family she performs are; and we don't understand it any better than they do. And we care because we have seen the boy in front of us, embodied wonderfully in a few swift scenes that make him come to life, all teenage braggadocio and front. The sister is there too, with her pragmatism and bolshiness, and their tender mother, loving them, cooking, worrying about what they are wearing. The dad, proud and ultimately broken, traced in a few reminiscences from Letang's mouth.

The quality and detail of this wonderful performance is matched by writing of subtlety and intensely moving restraint. The hour builds through the comic detail of a day that begins with 'clothes confusion' due to the weather, burnt bits in the porridge and a borrowed phone charger and grows through the average irritations of work and shopping to the fact that it is the policeman's boots on her best front room carpet that obsess the mother as her life is torn apart by a random act of violence.

It is simply magnificent and held together by tight and compassionate direction from Tinuke Craig, winner of the Genesis Future Directors award and showing her talent vividly again here. The same gentle control is also manifest in Generations, the half-hour which opens the evening, a minimal piece which also has maximal effect about the baffling emptiness of loss. Deceptively simple it surrounds a family with a radiantly-voiced choir (the magnificent South African Cultural Choir) who open the play by reciting a litany of names.

Then the seven-strong cast talk about the way the boy is chatting up a girl by asking if she can cook. Just as her father did of her mother and her grandfather of her grandmother. Everyone has something to say about it especially the lively younger sister. At the end of the scene, she vanishes and the dialogue is played again with a sense of confusion over the emptiness where she once stood. Eventually only the grandparents are left, with the choir singing softly. Death has taken the rest. "I miss them", says the grandfather.

Beautifully played and set amidst stylised bright colours and stark lighting by Alex Lowde and Joshua Drualus Pharo, this is a pitch-perfect evening of work, crushingly depressing in its import but uplifting and compassionate in its execution. Congratulations to Chichester for such prescient programming; now it needs to be seen widely, opening hearts and minds.