What? Custody Theatre Production, about police brutality in the UK – created by Urbain Hayo & Written by Tom Wainwright

Where? Ovalhouse Theatre, 52-54 Kennington Oval, London, SE11 5SW

When? 28 March – 8 April

How much? Circa £8/£10

“There was a bit of a scuffle and I’m sorry to say he passed away”. The breaking of this tragic news to a bewildered family is an excerpt from the central refrain of the play, Custody.You didn’t ‘pass’… you were murdered“, retorts a grieving family member.

Created by Urbain Hayo and written by Tom Wainwright, this powerful production revolves around the death of a relatively young, ‘large’, ‘IC3’ (Met Police code for ‘Black’) male at the hands of officers after he was detained following a police stop. The initial stop allegedly occurred because they had ‘reason to believe’ that the silver BMW driven by the victim, Brian, was stolen. An all too familiar premise.

The police sustain that Brian behaved ‘aggressively’ and required restraint, becoming fatally injured during this process. He suffered from postural asphyxia to be medically precise. The subsequent Independent Police Complaints Commission investigation into ‘the exact sequence of events’ proves too strenuous for Brian’s family; impartiality is unlikely since the commission is comprised largely of former police officers. Custody offers scathing criticism of legal processes, highlighting the ways that justice is too often compromised through failings such as neglecting to separate officers involved so that they cannot collude, the loss of key evidence either through incompetence or negligence, and the vilifying of victims as ‘powerfully built’ therefore necessarily aggressive or as associated with gangs and drugs. The play does offer a glimmer of hope in the form of an ‘unlawful killing’ verdict, yet proceeds to reflect on how joyous such a verdict should be as it ultimately does not resurrect the deceased. Even this small hope is extinguished soon after, however, with the conclusion that there is insufficient evidence to prosecute the officers implicated, despite the fact that the video footage and eye witness statements of the incident exist.

The audience watch the wide range of emotions that ensue. Righteous anger is potent, as family members call for ‘vengeance’ and ‘their heads on sticks’. Unadulterated grief is felt, as Brian’s mother poetically exclaims how her ‘womb aches with nothingness’ and laments ever emigrating from Nigeria to England in the first instance. To evade his hurt and confusion, Brian’s younger brother begins to enact the ‘gangster’ stereotypes ascribed to Brian.

The play is immersive and remarkably considered, even down to the set design which features memorial candles and objects laid in Brian’s honour. It is simultaneously hilarious – while some have criticised it has incongruous to the serious subject matter, some viewers might endure the duration only because of the and intelligence sharp humour that arises intermittently and contrasts the tension that persists throughout. Laughter, after all, however uncomfortable, can be a therapeutic coping mechanism.

Inspired partly by Migrant Media’s Injustice documentary (2001), the rich, dense social commentary embedded within the play aims to inform all viewers that ‘Brian is every black man and black woman’ who constitutes the 1500 Black people who have been killed in Police Custody in Britain since 1990. It is asserted that that no cultural proximity to whiteness, no sophisticated manner of speech or respectable sense of dress can mitigate wholly against the racism that attracts negative attention from the police, as was tragically proven in the case of Brian.

In the Q&A which followed the production, creator Urbain reiterates that he aims through the play to raise awareness of deaths in custody, encourage viewers to familiarise themselves with the recent cases and to dispel the dangerous myth that brutal policing is only an American issue.