It's not often that a show comes along that can be both utterly transfixing but devastatingly uncomfortable to watch at the same time. The Chichester marketing material states that Roy Williams' play (which premiered at the National in 2002) is not for the fainthearted – they weren't kidding. The material is raw and real and is miserably just as relevant now as it was 17 years ago.
The installation of a Spiegeltent in the picturesque park that sits next to the Festival Theatre has given director Nicole Charles and designer Joanna Scotcher the perfect venue in which to literally recreate the interior of a south London pub. The working bar, the sticky carpets and the mismatched bar stools make this immersive theatre at its best. As the regulars of the King George gather to watch the England vs Germany 2000 World Cup qualifier the well-manicured setting of Chichester is easily forgotten.
Williams has brilliantly crafted characters that are as recognisable as they are detestable. However – he never preaches, and manages to illustrate the flaws and the history that have made these men what they are. His exploration of racism on our own doorstep is frighteningly close to home and demonstrates how easily it can grow like a cancer within some communities. Out of this we see the germination of the gang culture and knife crime that plagues us today.
Charles' direction is daring and runs at a velocity as forceful as the bricks that are thrown through the pub windows. There are genuinely chilling moments that set the hairs on the neck on end. Watching the fearless ensemble singing the National Anthem fills you not with national pride but instead makes your blood run cold with its nationalist vibes.
The entire company is magnificent. Richard Riddell's Lawrie is terrifying in his lack of understanding of the world and with the vitriol that he is proud to spout. He is drip-fed poison by Michael Hodgson's slimy Alan, a member of right wing group that cowardly prays on the weaknesses of some to spread their odious ideologies.
On the receiving end of the racial tension there are brave and reflective performances from Mark Springer and Makir Ahmed as brothers Mark and Barry. Ahmed in particular superbly manages the arc of wanting acceptance from this group of ‘friends' to a dawning that they will always see him as different. This is part of the destruction that leads to the final and tragic ending.
Martyn Ellis and Sian Reese-Williams are terrific as Father and Daughter trying their best to run the pub but never far from a racist comment or two. Alexander Cobb's Lee battles with an upbringing that has clearly instilled a set of beliefs that he wants to deny now as a police officer but can never fully escape from. Great work too from Billy Kennedy, Harold Addo and Dajay Brown as the youngsters raging their own gang-related battles.
This is without doubt the high scorer of this year's Chichester season. It is harrowing to watch but watch it you must.