Roy Williams's 2009 play Category B has some acting names to watch out for
“What do you think will happen if the cons don’t get the occasional high? You’d have a riot on your hands, blud, every week?”
The Tricycle Theatre has commissioned a series of three plays by Black British playwrights which look at what life is like in Britain today. Roy Williams kicks off the season with a play about prisons and prisoners.
Category B alludes to the Home Office classification of prisons where Category A is a maximum security prison for murderers and serial rapists and Category D is an open prison full of prisoners who are almost treated as privileged residents. Category B prisons are where prisoners are on remand and assessed, but many end up spending all of their sentence here. Anyone who has visited a prisoner on remand will be shocked by the high proportion of young black men in custody.
Roy Williams analyses the society in this particular Category B prison with shifts in the power base for both prisoners and warders. When visiting prisons Williams was struck by the almost fatherly approach of some of the warders to the prisoners. His play looks at the interrelating power structures within the men and the prison officers in this community which is also a prison.
David Saunders (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) is a likeable new appointment to this prison’s staff and the outgoing guard Angela (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) is showing him around. Ange is in an extra-marital sexual relationship with another warder, Andy (Robert Whitelock).
Heading up the prisoners’ chain of command is Saul (Jimmy Akingbola) who controls the supply of soft drugs, without which the warders know there would be more riots and unrest. The new prisoner is Rio (Aml Ameen) who has been convicted of rape charges and who comes under the protection of, about to be released after a long sentence, Errol (Karl Collins). Abhin Galeya plays Riz, the Muslim kick boxer, who is vying for power as second in command. Errol knows Rio’s family and when she visits, Rio’s mother Chandra (Jaye Griffiths) asks Errol to look out for her son.
There are twists and turns to the plot which I don’t want to give away or even hint at but there is much to involve the audience from the hierarchy in the prison to the social pressures on young black men to conform to gang mores. There is a wonderful scene, where Rio visited by his mother and brother Reece (John Boyega), show us what the priorities of the street are while their mother Chandra sits in trying to keep control of her sons and they suddenly realise what they have said in front of her like naughty children.
The acting performances are crisp and believable. Aml Ameen is a promising new actor as the youngster Rio who arrives full of false bravado. Jimmy Akingbola as Saul the prisoner king pin makes his first entrance with a rolling, prowling gait, commanding and attractive. Errol’s tight predicament sees a fine performance from Karl Collins, tense and strung. When the attacks come the brightly coloured plastic “knives” held to throats are improvised sharpened tooth brushes. Jaye Griffiths elicits the sympathy of a mother’s pain and allows us to look at the responsibility parents feel about their children being locked up. I really liked Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s delightful new warder who continually has to correct people who get his name wrong in a merry rif. His part as David stressing his authority with a hunching of his shoulders is in light contrast with Sharon Duncan-Brewster’s Ange the tough, but fair woman on the staff. I was less convinced by the sexual scenes between Ange and white warder Andy.
Roy Williams’ writing is real and intense but it also has coloratura moments of light to allow the shade to impact more deeply. When Errol says “Bullshit!” a lot, Chandra gently reprimands him by suggesting he needs a thesaurus. Who could fail to smile at Riz’s fanatical devotion to all trivia to do with the Star Wars films and yet shiver at his violence and volatility? Director Paulette Randall allows these actors to play their strengths in this original prison set play. Rosa Maggiora’s design has a balcony and open iron stairs either side to increase the playing area possibilities and convey the grey cold prisonscape.
The next two plays in this promising repertory season which use the same cast of actors, plus three more women, are Kwame Kwei-Armah’s Seize the Day and woman writer Bola Agbaje’s Detaining Justice. I can’t wait!
Written by Roy Williams
Directed by Paulette Randall
Director: Paulette Randall
Designer: Rosa Maggiora
Lighting Designer: James Farncombe
Sound Designer: Tom Lishman
Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes with one interval
Closed at the Tricycle Theatre on 19th December 2009
269 Kilburn High Road
London NW6 7JR
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Tricycle Theatre on 12th October 2009