Cops (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: January 19, 2020 in Theatre

Writer: Tony Tortora      Director: Andy Jordan

⭐️⭐️⭐️

American cop dramas have been part of our staple cultural diet ever since the advent of cinema and television, but rarely, if ever, has the genre translated to the stage. British-based, US-born writer Tony Tortora sets out to change that with this new play set mainly in a room shared by four officers at Chicago’s police headquarters in 1957.

Tortora’s writing shows keen attention to detail which is matched by Anthony Lamble’s set design. Four wooden desks, one in miniature for the rookie officer, all with black manual typewriters and two-piece telephones, are spread around the room along with filing cabinets, a notice board and a fridge in the corner. If there had been some way in which Lamble could have made it all appear in black and white, the evocation of period would have been complete.

The room’s occupants talk a lot and rile each other persistently, but it is not clear that they are doing very much to improve crime statistics in the State of Illinois. Their only active duty comes with overnight stake-outs inside a deserted building, which appears behind the main set. This is a time in which racism and sexism are institutionalised and barely challenged within the police department and corruption on all levels is a norm. Tortora captures the tensions between the four officers and brings them to boiling point in the play’s first act, following it with a second act that is softer and more conciliatory.

67-year-old Stan (Roger Alborough) is senior in age, but not rank. He is weather-beaten, quick-tempered and resistant to change. He has been a cop for more than half a century, having lied about his age to join the force, has seen it all, including the St Valentine’s Day Massacre, and now hangs on because there is nothing else in life for him to do. As a mark of respect to him, the senior officer, Eulee, brings him coffee and doughnuts every morning. Eulie, as played by James Sobol Kelly, is a desolate figure, broken by family tragedy and now regarded in the department as a “soft touch)”.

The rookie, who models himself on Elvis Presley, is 22-year old Foxy, played with a confident swagger by Jack Flamminger and the fourth main character is Rosey, who is black. It is not the fault of Daniel Francis, who plays him, that we know as little about Rosey at the end of the play as at the beginning. He is the only one of the four characters that the writer does not explore properly, which is particularly disappointing when the spectre of racism hangs over this era and his perspective could have added much to the drama.

A fifth cop, Hurley (Ben Keaton) makes fleeting appearances at the stake-outs, begging for sips of warm coffee in breaks from rooftop watch on freezing Winter nights in the Windy City. He is there mainly for comic effect and director Andy Jordan’s production strikes an assured balance between the tension and the humour in this macho environment.

So how does Chicago 1957 connect with London 2020? It is Tortora’s failure to find a satisfactory answer to this question which highlights the play’s chief problem – its lack of clear purpose. The problem is compounded further by the weakness of the narrative which runs through to provide a framework and then climaxes with a cop out ending. Sharp dialogue and solid acting make the dramatic exchanges arresting enough, but, for too long, the play meanders aimlessly.

Performance date: 17 January 2020

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