In a time of protest and unrest, Sharon Clark’s new play, The Biting Point, looks back to the early 1980s, to a time when riots scorched the streets of Southall and Brixton.
The play tells the stories of three characters, a police officer, an angry young man and an ANL supporter, in the days running up to a big march. Clark takes time and care in fleshing out their back-stories and in showing their motivations to be complex, messy and human. Yet even though there’s something slightly too forced and obvious about this desire to show that things are never clear cut as you think and that everyone has their reasons for behaving as they do, Clark goes about it in an intriguing way.
The march itself acts as a catalyst for the out-spilling of suppressed emotions. In many ways this is not a play about the riots at all, they’re simply a means of – violently – bringing these people together.
Malcolm is a hardworking young man who spends much of his spare time looking after his sister who has learning difficulties. He’s kind and patient, a dedicated carer, but it takes all his energy to remain so. He wants more and is beginning to grasp quite how much his sister is holding him back. Things come to a head when he invites a girl he’s attracted to back to their house.
Dennis is a teacher who’s involved in a relationship with one of his students, Anna. He despises himself but he’s weak and she knows it; Anna takes pleasure in exploiting the evident power she has over him. Ruth completes this narrative triangle. She speaks in a succession of oddly charged monologues, ever wary, her body tensing when a hand knocks at the door.
Charlie Holloway gives a an admirably slow-burning performance as Malcolm, a man accustomed to ignoring his own needs and wants, and swallowing his rage until it threatens to choke him. (It is more than fitting that his sister has an obsession with volcanoes and earthquakes). He’s been abandoned by his parents, left to fend for himself, and Clark paints a convincing picture of someone who might find solace and support in an extremist group. Gyuri Sarossy‘s Dennis is revealed to be quite reprehensible in some ways but he retains a degree of charisma throughout. Lizzie Roper’s Ruth stands apart from the other characters. Hers is an intense performance but the character’s instability never quite convinces.
Dan Coleman’s production is measured and restrained and benefits from Mark Friend’s aptly jagged, Futurist set. It’s testament to Coleman’s skill that the production’s most gripping moment is when Malcolm calmly destroys something very precious of his sister’s. Interestingly, when the three stories finally collide, in a suburban back garden with the roar of the crowd and the angry crunch of boots on tarmac growing louder around them, the tension dissipates somewhat. The conclusion lacks the punch of what has gone before.
Clark is rather too deliberate in the way she plays with audience expectations. She holds off assigning ‘sides’ to her characters until near the end – when they all don their various ‘uniforms’ before heading into the fray – but there’s something cautious about her approach, her careful muddying of the moral waters, that means her play is not as hard hitting as it might have been.