Elisabeth Mahoney. July, 2009.

It's hard to think of a better setting for Barrie Keeffe's 1979 play about racist police on the eve of the Thatcher government coming into power in 1979 than Bridewell Island. A former police and fire station, it's right in the heart of Bristol and looks forlorn from the outside now. As you watch the menace and grievous unfairness spill out on stage, in a huge auditorium flanked by television screens showing election-night footage, you can't forget that something like what is happening on stage may well have happened within these walls.

The themes and issues of Keeffe's drama, in which a young black man is brought in on suspicion of his wife's murder and brutalised in the interrogation, still feel depressingly current, and the writing remains impressively tight and economic – it's no surprise that Keeffe worked as a newspaper reporter. Robert Gwilym and Jack Wharrier, as police officers Karn and Wilby, do rather more than play good cop and bad cop: their laid-back, casual hatred seethes all the time but flares into occasional, unpredictable, terrifying violence. Gwilym's performance is wince-makingly good as Karn, with his hopes for an ominous "new dawn" articulated though a long night of questions.

What works best here is the oppressive nostalgia, a reminder of how bad things were, and how polarised communities were, for all Thatcher's talk of bringing harmony. The play ultimately feels a bit dwarfed by the cavernous performance space. Despite the evocative building, the piece needs to feel claustrophobically close – especially for younger audiences who might not remember May 1979 – and unsettlingly relevant.


SUS. Bob Gwilym, Jack Wharrier, Huss Garbiya .

Photos: Toby Farrow.

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