Nottingham Playhouse’s ambitious 2015/16 ‘Conspiracy Season’ concludes with one of the theatre’s most important productions of recent years. Kefi Chadwick’s new play confronts the systematic abuse of political activists by the police in long-term undercover operations through the story of a single Nottingham woman, Mel, who lives for four years with a man leading a double life. In making a national news story local and personal, focusing on the run-up to the 2009 action at Ratcliffe Power Station that saw many protestors arrested, Chadwick’s play seeks to demonstrate the scale of the betrayal of ordinary women by a corrupt police institution.
Chadwick’s play, under the direction of Giles Croft, develops by slowly integrating the new arrival into a happy, domestic community. Mel, housemate Gav, and their friend Karen have a cosy life characterised alternately by impassioned politics and impromptu ABBA karaoke, and the constant circulation of backpacks, empty bottles and overcoats as they race from one protest to the next quickly establishes their co-dependent camaraderie. As they welcome the straight-talking Dave into their circle and build a trust with him based on their core values, it is hard not to see the immediate corrosive effect of his lies. One of the play’s subtler achievements is watching Mel slowly alter her own personality to match Dave’s false one, adopting his preferences for food, music and clothing.
The dynamics of the protesters ring true, the warmth of their friendships compensating for some occasional artificial speechifying. The standout scene is played for laughs, as Mel takes Dave to meet her mother and sister Abby, who works in PR. As Mel and Abby trade harsh blows over their respective lifestyle choices, Dave brightly discusses biscuits with the mother, insinuating himself into the household while leaving his own position unspoken. Later, after the mother’s death, he stands with the sisters at the graveside and concocts a story of his own dead father to comfort the grieving Mel. The investment in the family situation is repaid in this most bitter lie.
Yet despite the clear interest in Mel’s experience, the play structurally makes Dave the central character, and in this missteps badly. While the domestic plot begins with Mel, the action soon switches to following Dave as he splits his time between Mel, his actual wife, and his bosses. At first it appears that this might provide an opportunity to spend time on the many different victims of his deception, but instead the play concentrates increasingly on his woes – his poor treatment by the police establishment, his estrangement from his wife and children, his crisis when his bosses finally pull him out. Even the multi-level set is structured around the different locations Dave visits, and by the second half he is continuously onstage while the other actors revolve around him. At times, this seems to be a play about how traumatic it is for an undercover officer to have to deceive several women simultaneously without proper recognition.
This is perhaps an innate difficulty for subject matter that depends on victims who are in the dark for many years, unaware that there is any conflict. But by deferring the unveiling of Dave’s true identity until very near the play’s end, the women have precious little stage-time left to speak in by the time they become cognisant of the truth. A subplot revealing that Karen is also an undercover officer is dispensed with in a single scene, Dave’s wife disappears from the narrative entirely, and Mel gets only a few minutes at the end of the play to bond with two other victims and have a final confrontation with Dave. The play regains its voice in these final minutes as the much more powerful story of how the victims deal with the betrayal takes centre-stage, but ends abruptly as Mel finally opens her mouth to speak in public about her experience.
The silencing of victims is, however, part of the play’s point. Chadwick punctuates the text with snippets from a Parliamentary hearing, during which a severe lawyer cross-examines victims, twisting the women’s words to accuse them of being promiscuous, liars and affiliated with terrorists. The play’s anger comes across most forcefully in these scenes, staged with the actors downstage in spotlights, as the voices – based on Chadwick’s extensive research and interviews – speak truth and are rebuffed. The shift away from soap-opera naturalism succeeds in making the play’s political point about the ongoing maligning of victims, and more of this would have been welcome.
This play is nonetheless a major achievement for the Nottingham Playhouse and offers an important, emotive call for action by demonstrating the scale of the betrayal perpetuated on activists and exposing the belligerent callousness of the police towards those affected. It painstakingly captures the insidiousness of a lie that sullies everything it touches and destroys the ability to trust. While the play would ideally spend less time on the perpetrators, it nonetheless establishes a platform which, one hopes, will enable many more victims to speak about their experiences and seek justice, and, crucially, prevent this happening again.