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05 February 1999

A drama out of a crisis

Claire Fox reviews a hard-hitting play about the Stephen Lawrence inquiry which doesn't give in to emotionalism

If like me you feel a certain Lawrence case fatigue after the wall-to-wall coverage given to it by the media, you might find the prospect of a dramatic repetition of what you already know less than appealing. But The Colour of Justice by Richard Norton-Taylor is brilliant.

The play is staged entirely in a mock courtroom, with little movement and lots of lawyers. It is not fiction, but a reconstruction of last year's Lawrence inquiry, which hit the headlines with its ugly clashes between the alleged murderers and Lawrence family sympathisers. Playwright Norton-Taylor, who edited the transcripts of the inquiry into this dramatic version, has done an excellent job. He has reduced 69 days of public hearings into two-and-a-half hours of powerful theatre.

Norton-Taylor's brutal and dispassionate approach works well. The audience is presented with the evidence, the words of the witnesses, and asked to draw their own conclusions. There is no lecturing or editorialising. The characterisation and acting make the words come alive. Conor Taffe, the Irish Catholic man who was on his way back from a prayer group when he came across a dying Stephen, is played with such conviction by Tim Woodward that I was convinced he was a member of my mother's parish and I had seen him at Mass. The police in the play are not all villains; their culpability is inferred by their stories of lost notebooks and failed memories rather than gross caricatures. Tension in The Colour of Justice is maintained by layered story-telling; the audience has to work out the truth from the different versions of events given by the witnesses.

The play goes out of its way to avoid overt emotionalism, a rare treat in 1990s Britain. The focus is not on Doreen or Neville Lawrence, who are portrayed throughout but are not the focus of attention. Victim-centred emotionalism, which is now so popular and often used to gain the moral high-ground, is here subsumed to a more measured approach. The play appealed to our heads rather than our hearts, but, as is often the way in drama, the emotional force was stronger by the understated use of material. I was moved by the facts.

One thing about the play jarred. The audience is put in the position of being the jury, and by the time Jamie Acourt (one of the accused, played bravely by Christopher Fox) makes his entrance, we are tempted to find him guilty. This was pantomime villain time. And yet to judge him guilty, however unsavoury a character he might be, is to contradict the whole point of the inquiry - that there is little concrete evidence against him or the other four suspects. This is precisely because there is evidence that the police either wilfully or negligently, for reasons of racism, incompetence and/or corruption, failed to garner sufficient evidence. One of the most poignant and dramatic testimonies in the play is that of Howard Youngerwood (Thomas Wheatley), the crown prosecutor who explained that, despite his personal beliefs, it would be wrong to prosecute people without sufficient proof. Emotional empathy is not sufficient in a court of law, and never should it be.

At the end, I stood for the minute's silence for Stephen, and I would have stood for the excellent cast had they taken their bow. But they played to type to the end and never re-emerged for me to show my appreciation. Who cares if the great and the good are flocking to see this play to prove their anti-racist credentials? You be there to see some well-acted, thought-provoking theatre.

The Colour of Justice runs at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, London until 6 February. It plays at Theatre Royal, Stratford East from 15 to 27 February, and then at Victoria Palace in London from 3 to 13 March.

Claire Fox is co-director of the forthcoming conference 'Culture Wars: Dumbing Down, Wising Up?'

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