An explosive opening gets the Royal Court’s “Fallout” off to an edgy, unsettling start that the play’s eventual segue into something more conventional and message-heavy can’t diminish. The latest in a welcome array of high-profile black British drama at some of London’s premier venues (from “Crazyblackmuthafuckin’self” at the Court this past winter to the National’s current “Elmina’s Kitchen”), “Fallout” benefits from a particularly feisty staging from Court a.d. Ian Rickson in a reconfigured space — minus some 140 seats to accommodate Ultz’s largely bare, gray set — that turns the Court mainstage into an inner-city gladiatorial ring.
The design suits a drama that draws from today’s headlines while simultaneously offering up a troubled landscape of London council estate disaffection and drear, the sort of world more frequently chronicled in British TV and film (and “Fallout” could make a fine one). With that in mind, Williams’ play, his third for the Court, certainly works the audience, whether or not one brings to it an awareness of the murder in south London’s Peckham in November 2000 of 10-year-old Damilola Taylor, a Nigerian boy who was attacked on his way home from a computer class. All four defendants in the case were acquitted, but the national soul-searching that ensued lives on, fed not least by the prior (and fatal) stabbing in 1993 of Stephen Lawrence, a black 18-year-old whose murderers were never convicted.
These incidents in different ways inform Williams’ opening, a brutal black-on-black assault on Kwame, a promising university-bound bookworm who has his head kicked in on his way home from a south London burger joint. Two teenage girls, Shanice (Ony Uhiara) and Ronnie (Petra Letang), were witnesses to a crime being investigated by two policemen with differing points of view: Matt (Daniel Ryan), the ostensibly “modern” (for which, read PC) and pragmatically minded senior white cop, and Joe (Lennie James), the quick-talking, jivey junior black cop whose judgments have no time for Matt’s “Guardian-reading shit.” Having grown up during kinder days in the area where Kwame was killed, Joe wants “the old school of policing,” that’s to say a conviction and justice, in an attempt to remind the black community that morality and responsibility matter. As do human lives.
Joe is a fascinating character, a prismatic figure of defiant authority and barely simmering rage who won’t be beaten down by the sort of black behavior that does in Kwame — and could bring Joe down, too. “I tell you, Emile,” Joe explodes at principal suspect Emile (Marcel McCalla), “them white bwois are poles apart. Niggers, Emile, can’t play the game. You can’t play the game, Kwame played the game, Kwame had a life. He was a decent kid. But you, you! You want a life, bwoi, get your own.”
At times, one feels the issues fueling the play and not the other way around. “You were Kwame, weren’t you?” Joe is asked, lest we weren’t capable of making the connection ourselves. The hectoring impulses of the writing are even more apparent in the context of a watchably springy and agile cast — the ever-excellent James, especially — who transform the occasional textual sermon into a patois-laden punch in the guts, the actors careering on to the sloping stage as if into the lion’s den.
It’s the self-evident commitment coursing through “Fallout” that made one take more than usual note of the response at the perf caught from a handful or two of the younger black members of the audience, teens possibly from backgrounds not dissimilar to the characters onstage, who were clearly visible flanking the action. (The physical staging directly recalls Stephen Daldry’s ringside Court revival some years back of Ron Hutchinson’s comparably angry “Rat in the Skull.”) During the opening assault, some of these kids could be seen smiling and giggling, as if to anticipate Joe’s later remark, “You lot laughing, as if it didn’t mean a thing.” And the play’s lone instance of black-on-white aggression, an act of intimidation by the teen girls toward a female teacher from their school, drew scattered applause.
Why is that, one wonders, no doubt succumbing to the same Guardian-reader mindset that Joe would be quick to impugn? Did these viewers find the play’s contents all too familiar? Or, conversely, all too stagy and fake, compared to real life? Whatever the reason, the mirth induced by a far from merry play leaves one pondering the societal fallout that, on this evidence, clearly looks to be alive and flourishing long after the limited run of “Fallout” has come to a close.