As the audience saunters in (or, in this case, logs in to the livestream), a claxon lists a litany of demanding questions: “What were you thinking at the time? How did you feel at the time? How have you felt about this since? How else have you been affected?” For those who have lived through the epidemic of knife crime and youth disenfranchisement, these questions are all too familiar.
First formed in 2008, after directors Dave Carey and Christine Niering discovered a 21-year old friend of theirs had been stabbed to death, Crime of the Century is a step against “urban life gone wrong”. Designed to be performed in schools, or to youth groups, the show represents the lived experience of gang violence by young people, bridging the conversation between audience and performer. Although lacking a conventional plot, it more than makes up for it with utterly moving sequences.
Indeed, the show itself is little more than a poetic outline, which audiences are invited to colour-in with their own experiences. The central narrative is left vague enough that viewers can project their own memories onto it, crafting a personal experience in tandem with the show. Expressive rather than didactic, Crime of the Century is fully dedicated towards inviting the audiences into the discussion, to great effect.
From beginning to end, Crime of the Century is filled to the brim with haunting motifs. At one point, a youth attempts to stand up out of a chair, only to be forcefully pushed back down again by a gaggle of onlookers. Nevertheless, he tries to stand again, once more getting pushed down, with this cycle repeating over and over. Moments later, however, the chair is assaulted by passers-by, ripped apart at its joints by explosive kineticism. It’s sobering stuff, that never ceases to be thoughtful.
What is most mesmerising about the show is how it creates its own dramatic language in this regard, using this new vernacular to connect with the audience. With lashings of dance, physical theatre, verbatim recording, rhythmic spoken word, and direct address, Crime of the Century becomes a melting pot of different forms, ideas, and evocations; truly breath-taking. Moreover, no one facet is too complex: it’s a conversation that everyone can access. You don’t need to be a dramaturg to engage with Crimes of the Century – you just need a soul.
What is slightly jarring, however, is that the show frames itself as a “positive” tool in fighting the savagery of knife crime – make no mistake, it wasn’t a “positive” experience. The tragic outcome, the explosive aggression, the innate sadness; this wasn’t a ‘happy’ show. Instead, the positivity stems from the change Crimes of the Century hopefully enacts – the incremental steps it makes towards ending the epidemic of gang violence. It’s a difficult conversation, but one definitely worth having.
Crime of the Century is available on Chickenshed Theatre’s YouTube Channel until the 31st January 2021. For more information, see Chickenshed Theatre’s website.