The first time I saw Barrie Keeffe’s excellent play SUS was in the Young Vic’s Clare Studio space in 2010. I was immediately struck by the power and poignancy of Keeffe’s seminal work; this is a play which pins you to your seat, demands your attention, and then lingers with you long after your journey home. Whilst Paul Tomlinson’s production at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre unfortunately feels a little tame and at times toothless by comparison, it is still a piece which painfully resonates with contemporary audiences.
SUS, standing for ‘Suspect Under Suspicion’, with the play allegedly named this as to save on price per word in The Guardian theatre listings, focuses on election night 1979 and the powers which allowed police to stop and search anyone – based entirely on suspicion. The SUS law allows for police officers Karn and Wilby to pick up a black man, Leroy, who is then accused of murdering his wife, who had died that night under highly tragic circumstances.
Keeffe wrote SUS almost immediately after Thatcher’s first election victory and it debuted shortly after that – in this regard SUS and Keeffe can be read as barometers of social change and sentiment. The result is shocking and disturbing. Leroy mentions some of the trumped-up charges he has faced under SUS before, including being “a banana thief”, whilst a letter from his dead wife is described by Karn as coming from “Nig-Nog Land”. The writing is brutal: Keeffe speaks with an authenticity which is chillingly efficient.
This is a play which stands separate from the actors that perform it and ultimately outshines them. Alexander Neal and Nason Crone provide capable performances as officers Karn and Wilby respectively, yet something didn’t quite ring true; Neal and Crone appear a little too similar, there is no distinction between rank or age which is necessary to create strong, individual performances. Karn is the superior officer, but there is little to suggest this. Wole Sawyerr by and large provides a strong and credible performance as Leroy, although his character development from a proud black man with experience of the police’s ingrained racism to wreck of raw and vulnerable emotions appears a little bit too rushed.
Equally, the staging also appears frustratingly adequate, and not much more. The audience are sat in the police interrogation room side-on, with a whole row of unused chairs and dead space opposite them. The potential to stage this in the round, with the added intensity that this would provide, is a missed opportunity.
Despite this production’s shortcomings, SUS will always be a play which carries the audience with it, speaking to and for people who may have experienced this form of “justice” themselves. Indeed, “I write plays for people who wouldn’t be seen dead in a theatre” Keeffe once said. Whilst the SUS law may thankfully be long gone, SUS’s political light and message has far from faded; a screen at the head of the space informs the audience that under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, black people are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched. The last word has to go to Keeffe again; who stresses “how vital theatre’s value can be in our present society”.
SUS is running at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre until 23rd March. For more information and tickets, see the Lion and Unicorn Theatre website.