A good piece of political theatre should aim to challenge its audience’s views, to provoke critical thought, and to engage with its audience, all while not overlooking the need to be theatrical; Julian Armitstead’s After the Accident achieves many of these things.
The play explores the issues surrounding restorative justice, a term which is defined by the Restorative Justice Council as the processes involved in bringing ‘those harmed by crime or conflict, and those responsible for the harm, into communication, enabling everyone affected by a particular incident to play a part in repairing the harm and finding a positive way forward.’ In 2008 the play won the Amnesty International ‘Protect the Human’ playwriting competition and it has already been adapted for Radio 4’s Friday Play.
Four years ago the young daughter of Petra and Jimmy (Frances Ashman and Richard Stacey) was killed in a car accident involving joy-rider Leon (James Kozlowski). Now, Petra and Jimmy prepare to come face to face with Leon upon his release from jail, as part of the process of restorative justice. But what exactly can be ‘restored’ through such a meeting, and what issues lie beneath what seems like a straightforward case of cause and effect?
Caroline Hunt’s production, performed in a small studio space using only three actors, is claustrophobic and up front, forcing the audience to engage with the issues being played out on the stage. This intimacy gives the audience a chance to experience the actors’ abilities close up and allows them to engage with the play in a way that might not be possible in a less compact performance space. Stacey is particularly engrossing to watch, his performance nuanced and subtle yet expressive, a performance of the eyes as well as of the body and voice. Ashman and Kozlowski are no less commanding in comparison, though Kozlowki’s initially intimidating and thuggish demeanour feels a little forced and unnatural. But as the play proceeds he becomes more comfortable in the role.
Despite these excellent performances the main focus of Hunt’s production is really Armitstead’s writing and the issues being discussed. The piece is incredibly unbiased. Each of his characters represents a very clear approach to the argument: Petra is unyielding and unwilling to explore an alternative route to closure while Jimmy is keen to achieve something more profound; Leon, meanwhile, is presented as the ignored and forgotten other ‘victim’. This said, Armitstead manages to give each character enough depth and complexity that they never feel like mere mouthpieces; this allows the audience to relate to them and engage with their opinions.
The play is more than a collection of well-constructed arguments as Armitstead employs some effective theatrical devices. What starts as a dreamlike array of ambiguous memories related by each character, soon intersects with the plot and with Jimmy, Petra, and Leon’s preparations for their ultimate confrontation. But as the play moves on, these snapshots of memory add important background information to the narrative, and eventually come together to powerful and moving effect, embellishing what might otherwise have been a dry debate.
The main criticism here is that the piece is perhaps a little too academic in tone and therefore fails to resonate on an emotional level as much as it does on an intellectual one. But this really can’t be held against it too much as Armitstead’s endeavour to create a balanced argument is admirable and well realised. The play succeeds on a number of levels: it’s provocative, challenging, and engaging, balanced in its arguments and, at times, even haunting.