John Hopkins’ 1968 debut play, written when he was already known as one of the main writers on BBC police drama Z-Cars, is a highly intense and quite violent psychological thriller. The main character, Detective Sergeant Johnson, has beaten up a suspected child rapist and possibly killed him; Johnson takes it out brutally on his wife and falls apart in front of a superior officer. But the reality of what’s going on in his tortured mind, and what made him snap, remains elusive until the final scene.
I attended the production with a friend – a recently qualified clinical psychologist – which gave me a parallel perspective on the play. At least until the interval: the psychologist had hated it so much that he excused himself for the third – and best – act.
The first act sees a drunk Johnson knocking back glasses of spirits, being verbally and physically abusive to his wife, ranting about their marriage and about the circumstances that led to that moment – which we learn involved Johnson’s attack on the alleged paedophile, Kenneth Baxter. Johnson has moments in which he seems to relive vivid images of violence, abuse and gore from his police career – and he continually seems to be on the verge of telling his wife something important, only to swing back into another rant.
The second act has Johnson in a room with a chief inspector, whose agenda is nominally to establish the facts of the beating, but in reality to assist Johnson in concocting a narrative that will get him off the hook. Johnson displays the same tendencies as with his wife, but this time, they turn him into a gibbering wreck. I had been impressed by Brian Merry as Johnson, keeping a measure of coherence in a very challenging part that required him to be emotionally heightened at all times.
Still, I found the play dated in its focus on Johnson, rather than his wife – after the tremendous leaps forward cultural discourse has made in the last year, it’s hard to imagine a writer or theatre company today wanting to tell a story so focused on an abuser, rather than his victim. But otherwise it seemed to me an intelligent early depiction of the emotional damage suffered by some police officers, a topic that has now become hackneyed.
My half-time chinwag with my psychologist friend almost turned me against the play, however. The indicators were there when he spotted me writing down “PTSD?”, grabbed my notebook, and added the words “abuser chic”. He thought the play was woefully bad; a shameless romanticisation of abuse, and an inaccurate portrayal of post-traumatic stress disorder. I’m generally of the mind that theatres should put on more new plays, that there are too many revivals of quite old plays that can only really be appreciated on an academic level. And so that’s the assessment of This Story of Yours I was leaning towards as I returned to my seat.
But the third act, which goes back in time to the interrogation scene, was a totally different prospect. The friction between Merry and David Sayers (also the director) as Kenneth Baxter is terrific. The denouement is unexpected, moving and horrible. After I relayed my new interpretation of Johnson’s psychological state to my psychologist friend, he admitted he might have taken a lot more from the play if he’d returned for the second half. But in truth, I can’t blame him for being a quitter – the 95 minute first half was a slog. Sayers could and should have found a way to heavily cut the script. As it stands, the payoff is only half-worth it.
This Story of Yours is on at White Bear Theatre until 27th January. Book tickets here.