The performance of Someone To Blame at The King’s Head Theatre is part of the campaign to free Sam Hallam, aptly timed considering his appeal is this coming May. After a group of Hoxton youths attacked and killed a man in Finsbury, Sam was convicted of murder and has spent the past seven years of his life in prison. Sam denies he was even present at the scene of the crime. The prosecution case rested on two unreliable eye-witnesses, one of whom retracted his accusation in court, whilst the other admitted she was just looking for “someone to blame”. As well as reminding us that miscarriages of justice can still occur, this performance reminds us of theatre’s potency: it can provide real people with an opportunity to raise their issues and air them in public without the capital or connections usually required to do so. And if writer Tess Berry-Hart’s stringent determination to stick to the script of interviews and cross-examination in court had left me in any doubt whatsoever about the truth of this happening to very real people, an audience crying and on their feet at the play’s conclusion must surely have proved otherwise. To see such a production performed in Islington, Sam’s home borough, and to be among audience members who knew him and who have clearly played a pivotal role in the campaign to set him free, made me feel extraordinarily privileged to have been there and part of politics in the making.
With beautiful simplicity, the inherently dramatic nature of the saga surrounding the accusation and imprisonment of Sam Hallam is replicated onstage. The ease with which the rumour mill can whirl, and with which scapegoating can snowball, is rendered wonderfully well on stage: with utter credibility, we witness our own modern day The Crucible. The youthfulness of Sam, played understatedly and convincingly by Robin Crouch, is painful to watch as he is buffeted by the system: he is no match for the viciousness of the situation he finds himself in, or the intelligence and manipulation of his questioners. It is not so much that I entirely blame the police for their interrogative techniques – the contradictory nature of everyone’s witness statements makes this a part of the world where trust is impossible – but it does highlight the part the police play in creating the mistrust of authority that sparked off the August riots last year. However, the fact that Sam’s “no comment” responses to the police’s questioning, as advised by his solicitor, are used negatively against him later in court do provide a rather shocking indictment of the justice system and its inconsistencies.
Still relying almost entirely on transcripts, interviews with witnesses in police cells are transferred into the courtroom. Having seen firsthand how the nicest of men becomes bullying and manipulative in court, I have learnt that to undermine witnesses’ statements and to draw colourfully dramatic pictures is part and parcel of the lawyer’s trade. Scarily, the particulars of a judge’s decision comes down to which lawyer is better at painting which picture. As such, the inherent theatricality of the courtroom makes it the perfect real life scenario to enact onstage.
Beautifully constructed and well-written, nearly two hours sped by, leaving me to wonder in what other medium I could have been persuaded to find out so much factual information about a case I previously knew nothing about. The ease with which Berry-Hart interspersed various forms of speech (monologue, interviews, interrogations, conversations, letters) enabled the piece to maintain momentum throughout, whilst David Mercatali’s direction ensured an impressively varied use of all available space. The verisimilitude of the almost wholly verbatim script is matched by consistently high acting, with the actors’ disjointed replies and pauses bringing each character and their interviews to life before us. Succinct summaries delivered directly to the audience were provided at intervals by Paul May (Keith Hill), the lawyer currently on the case. Being able to refer to the script and pretend it away as part of the scholarly duties of being a lawyer usefully prevents the forgetfulness of Hill from hindering too seriously the impact of the piece, although I would have wished he had retained his self-composure and confidence a little better at this juncture. There are other limitations with the production; the decision to have both Sam and his mum read parts of his letter together is trite, whilst the flashing photography lights are just blinding, and I might have hoped for a few more appeals to the emotional. Only brief instances of the personal intrude on the bare facts of the case, but with devastatingly effective consequences: Sam’s mum’s response to the sentence of “guilty” is utterly heartbreaking (I can’t help but feel that the skill and sensitivity with which she dealt with a tricky part deserves more recognition in the programme than the ‘Ensemble’ credit she is given in the programme).
It is after Sam’s indictment, when we see snapshot insights into how, in true Bleak House style, the excess of paperwork and legalities all but submerges the case, that I begin to realise the uphill struggle Sam’s supporters had in achieving the momentous May appeal. It is then that I also begin to comprehend how critically important projects like this play are to galvanise support and harness public interest, and how rightly proud I should be to be part of this industry. Whether you have interest in justice, or politics, or theatre, it is worth going to see this play to realise why or how they are linked at all.
Someone To Blame is playing at the Kings Head Theatre until 31st March. For more information and tickets, see the Kings Head Theatre website.