Sunday 10 March 2024

Stage: What really happened?

by June Carryl
director Michael Matthews
with June Carryl, John Colella
set Carla Goodman • sound Charles Moscatiello
Seven Dials Playhouse, London • 5-30.Mar.24

Set in 2021 Los Angeles, this pointed two-hander draws a direct line between the incendiary police violence that sparked the Black Lives Matter protests and the January 6th insurrection. It's a bold, intense drama that continually punches its enormous themes about racism and social change. And while there's a razor sharp observation at the centre of the story, it feels perhaps a bit too polarised, never challenging the audience to consider things from a new perspective. This makes it riveting and involving, but never as provocative as it should be.

In a police interrogation room, two long-time friends and colleagues meet under new circumstances. Captain Parker (Carryl) is questioning veteran Sergeant Sully (Colella) about his role in a shooting that left a young man dead after what looked like a routine traffic stop. Over the course of a very tense hour, more details emerge about the situation, and Parker also confronts Sully about evidence that he participated in the attempt to subvert democracy during the Washington DC riot.

Of course, Sully's deep-seated racism and resentment emerge early on, echoed in throwaway lines and attitudes about how he sees society slipping away from what he thinks it should be. He denies it every time, but seeing him say these things directly to a Black woman he counts as a friend is darkly unnerving, and the ripples of emotion both actors convey are powerfully moving. These are seriously immersive roles that both actors play with full-on investment. Carryl is particularly involving as Parker tries to remain calm and professional in such a heated situation, but occasionally loses her cool. And Colella remarkably never flinches as the outspoken, angry and fear-fuelled Sully. Each actor adds extra interest by playing up the fact that these two people know each other very well, which allows the heightened emotion to be balanced with moments of earthy humour.

These realistic touches help create several heart-stopping exchanges over the course of this hour-long interrogation, as witty, natural interaction turns awkward and then heated. This is staged brilliantly, with the audience sitting right in the room, surrounding the table like eavesdropping ghosts. It's fascinating to watch their familiarity strain under the pressure, as a continual string of very clever lines hit the audience with full force. So watching these old friends circle around in an attempt to trap the other is powerfully involving, even if this is written in such a way that it's never a remotely fair fight.

photos by Laurie Sparham & David Adly Garcia • 8.Mar.24

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