Stop and Search is anything but obvious. Not just because its scope reveals itself to be much wider than the subject of the racist policy of its title, but because of its slightly muddy, convoluted throughline. It’s more complicated than it needs to be, because the barest moments of this story work – they hurt, as they should do.
In the first of Stop and Search’s three scenes, a white driver picks up a refugee and takes him through the Mont Blanc Tunnel; Eleanor Bull’s quietly eloquent set design of two car seats and a litre Coke bottle of piss against a grey gravel floor and a grey wall with three grey alcoves is strengthened by Richard Williamson’s equally effective lighting. Three fluorescent strips above the alcoves and further blinking lighting above manage the shift from oppressive tunnel into daylight effortlessly, and it helps to lift up this, the strongest scene of the play’s three.
This drive through the tunnel has the two strangers worrying at each other, but it quickly becomes apparent that the refugee Akim (Munashe Chirisa) is the more calm; Tel (Shaun Mason), the white Brit, is a plaintive bore who settles on calling Akim “Harry”. He’s sweating and jittery, possessed of a malicious imagination, needling Akim for the details of his suffering then shutting him down aggressively. When he gets close to the edge of how Akim has come to be here, he veers off, only to come immediately back a few moments later. He’s hungry for his suffering and only a threat to Akim because of their respective circumstances, a far weaker man. Playwright Gabriel Gbadamosi gets this across with piercing simplicity:
Tel: You got any kids?
Akim: Not anymore.
Tel isn’t just nervous because of the ride he’s giving to Akim: we learn something of his contrasting view of parenthood and the women in his life, and in the second scene we learn any pretense of control in Tel’s life slipped away a long time ago.
This is where things rapidly go south. Gbadamosi’s sharp, disjointed dialogue often lapses into a lyricism with causes the actors to flounder. The second scene, between David Kirkbride’s nasty cop and Tyler Luke Cunningham’s nicer cop, accordingly struggles along; there isn’t enough variation in Mehmet Ergen’s direction of the two actors to carry off the more abstract lines or the increasingly complicated stakes of the plot.
The crackling dialogue of the first scene isn’t reached again, though the third scene’s quiet tension between Bev (Jessye Romeo) and Akim comes close; Bev takes on the “desperate to talk” role, a staple in each of the play’s scenes, and Romeo’s minute, pained facial expressions are lovely. Alongside Mason’s boiling-point Tel, Chirisa as Akim is the strongest of the lot, a beautiful actor. At the only point he breaks down in the car with Tel, he shrugs a little, then again, smaller and fainter, as he keeps talking and crying – his silence, too, is something you could take in forever.
Stop and Search wants to do so much. It’s not just about the suspicion levelled at refugees, the impossible lengths people go to in hope of a future here or the unremitting anti-Black racism within in the UK: there’s gun smuggling? A stake out? A bent cop whose business isn’t finished when the job is? There are question marks here because Gbadamosi’s writing leaves things very opaque. Something is going on, but the menacing note the play ends on isn’t what will stay with me – it’ll be the moments of compassion and trust between strangers which Ergen spins out from the actors. When Stop and Search allows its characters to pause and breathe within its hectic plot, you feel it.
Stop and Search is on at the Arcola Theatre until 9th February 2019. More info here.