Review: Stop and Search (Arcola Theatre)

The Arcola Theatre’s production of Gabriel Gbadamosi’s new play looks at how we police each other

Munashe Chirisa (Akim)
Munashe Chirisa (Akim)
© Idil Sukan

Three stories interweave in Gabriel Gbadamosi's new play, Stop and Search. From the title alone, one might expect a narrative similar to that of Barrie Keeffe's SUS, which is about the laws that made it legal to stop and search anyone, with only suspicion for a reason. But Gbadamosi's theatrical storytelling moves far beyond the narrative of black citizens being stopped by police officers. Instead, Stop and Search asks questions about how we all police each other in a world of constant surveillance, paranoia and xenophobia.

At first glance, the sparse set creates a false sense of openness. Eleanor Bull's design presents us with two leather car seats, a one litre piss-filled cola bottle and a small pile of mysterious boxes. Tel (Shaun Mason), an unstable, verbally abusive and downright cocky Brit sits beside the soaking wet Akim (Munashe Chirisa), an illegal immigrant with a fake passport and a story he is initially unwilling to share. However, as the men remain seated, faces occasionally illuminated by overhead LED strips which imitate sudden flashes of light in a dark underground tunnel, the play takes on a more claustrophobic feel. We learn of Akim's struggles to escape his previous life, and the true story of how he lost his wife and children. Simmering under the surface of this conversation is the question of entitlement. Tel believes he's entitled to everything, from his girlfriend's body to dictating the freedom of those who enter his country – "I didn't vote for this!" he cries, bemoaning immigrants stealing his jobs and possessions. "I didn't f**king vote."

With the consequences of Brexit looming, Stop and Search provides a relevant discussion about ownership and freedom of movement. Despite the men's differences, Akim points out that they both 'want the same thing – to live'.

Meanwhile, Lee (Tyler Luke Cunningham) is navigating a new body as a transgender police officer, while being constantly mocked by transphobic officer Tone (David Kirkbride), and Bev (Jessye Romeo) is struggling to be the perfect black woman. In fact, each black character is on the receiving end of, at best, morbid curiosity and at worst, unrelenting hostility.

The show's focus on multilayered black experiences is to be commended; however a more considered approach to both pacing and delivery would have made it easier for us as the audience to connect with Lee and Bev's characters. The play's long monologues and sparse moments of direct address, blur the lines between conversation and interrogation. Daniel Balfour's haunting yet unobtrusive soundscape complements this, reflecting the uncomfortable yet lingering reality of fear and paranoia that permeates our own landscape today. However the consistently conversational tone of the piece creates long stretches of dialogue with little to no action, which makes it easier to detach emotionally from the central characters.

Ultimately, Stop and Search is a relevant play for our times, but would benefit from some sharper pacing to match the undercurrent of tension throughout the play.