History review – hostility repeats itself in tale of prejudice and protest

Available online
There are spirited performances as Roy Williams explores activism, parenthood and sexuality in this audio drama about black British identity spanning 40 years

Roy Williams’s audio drama pans over the past 40 years through the prism of one extended black British family. The story begins with a nation divided by Enoch Powell’s anti-immigrant fervour and arrives at Brexit Britain and the BLM protests of last summer. This intergenerational journey creates a semblance of forward movement but Williams’s script points to the dismal circularity of the fights fought then and now.

Produced by Pitlochry Festival theatre and the Royal Lyceum theatre in Edinburgh as part of the Sound Stage series, the play has a plot that hinges on police brutality and a cover-up that sees Neil (Cyril Nri) wrongfully imprisoned in his teens. Alongside the woefully familiar subject matter of police violence, Williams is not afraid to grapple with the lesser explored complexities of racial tensions between the Asian and black communities in Britain, too.

Comprising six interconnected monologues and duologues, its structure offers a survey of our times, even if this feels too broad-brush and brief. It begins with mutual hostility between an Asian shopkeeper and a group of young black men, and goes in some unexpected directions after a violent flashpoint to explore sexuality, absent fatherhood, domestic violence and activism within black British identity.

Roy Williams.
Roy Williams. Photograph: Robert Day

Directed by Ben Occhipinti, some parts of the drama feel like character studies filled with expositional statements. Confusingly, some monologues are narrated by unnamed characters and we are left to map out complex dynastic connections without clear enough signposting.

The cast is spirited nonetheless; Sharon D Clarke is particularly strong as Gwen, the sister of a key character, although her monologue in itself seems little more than a summary of her life that feeds the plot. Oliver Alvin-Wilson, as young gay man Jordan, speaks of his sexual desire with vulnerability and tenderness.

There is an exploration of how children relate to their fathers in Jordan’s storyline, and also in the last duologue between Neil and his daughter Claire (Amaka Okafor), which bears echoes of Williams’s recent – and excellent – short play in NW Trilogy at the Kiln theatre in London. But here the emotional reckoning is interrupted, and ultimately side-tracked, by rousing calls to activism by Claire. “This is your country, never forget that,” she tells him, adding: “It’s still going on, you know. The beatings, the arrests, the cover-ups.”

The drama is kept afloat by a buoyant soundtrack, the historical sweep captured superbly by musical interludes (composed by Darren J Benjamin) and news reports that draw our mind to historic moments, from Charles and Diana’s wedding to the Brixton riots and Boris Johnson’s Covid-era statement to “stay at home”. Even among these extraordinary events across the span of time, we are left with a sense of a hostile history repeating itself on the lives of these characters.


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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