REVIEW: Wildefire, Hampstead Theatre ✭✭

Wildefire at Hampstead Theatre
Fraser James and Ricky Champ. Photo: Ellie Kurttz

Hampstead Theatre
10 November 2014
2 Stars

Playwright Roy Williams says of his new play, Wildefire, now having its premiere performance in a production by Maria Aberg for the Hampstead Theatre, that:

“I felt instinctively that a female (police) officer would be much more interesting as she would have more to prove in this world. It was also important for my central character and their struggle to be the metaphor for where the Met possibly sees itself today. And making her a female character gives it added tension.”

While it is not possible to know “where the Met possibly sees itself today” it is, I suspect, beyond doubt that it does not see itself as Williams has depicted it here. Corrupt, stupid, foolishly loyal to each other and criminals themselves – no, I doubt the Met sees itself like that.

Equally, it is difficult to understand why it is necessarily the case that a female police officer would have “more to prove in this world” or that making a central character female “gives it added tension”. Why? Perhaps, as in so many other walks of life, women are forced to prove themselves where men are not, but that is not something confined to the Met and the play presents no evidence to that effect.

There is nothing new – whatsoever – in what Williams has penned here. The Bill and Prime Suspect have covered all of this ground, and much more compellingly.

Gail is a female officer newly transferred to a London station. Upon her arrival, she offers advice about how best to clean up vomit. Yep. She does. She has a husband and daughter, and as she throws herself into her work, strives to be accepted by her fellow officers, her family see less and less of her. Her policing partner, Spence, shows her the ropes and introduces her to the realities of his kind of policing – he pays informants for information contrary to the official rules.

She has difficulty with this, but after Spence is savagely murdered in front of her eyes (an act she does nothing to prevent, something that haunts her thereafter) she tries to mould herself in his image, to be a tougher, more ruthless copper. It all goes terribly wrong and she is dismissed from the force, following drug addiction, domestic violence and professional errors of judgment (including tipping off a gangster about a forthcoming raid).

Rather than being prosecuted for her several crimes, the final scene of the play sees her trying, as best she can, to do something for one of the victims of her professional misjudgment and lost moral compass.

It is far from clear what point Williams is trying to make. There is a lot of angst, shouting, violence, profanity and strong sexual references – but the whole is neither coherent nor revealing. No particular insight into the difficulties of modern day policing, for men or women, is given.

Director Maria Aberg certainly confronts the challenges Wildefire offers head on. There is some starkly realistic violence – the murder of Spence and it’s aftermath is especially powerful. Scenes of chaos, rioting and domestic violence are loud, confronting and seared with pain. Indeed, this is almost certainly a better production than the play deserves.

But a lot of the dialogue is inaudible and most of what can be heard is either shouted or poorly delivered. This makes it very difficult to engage or feel empathy with any of the characters. The three chief exceptions are Cian Barry’s Vince (a nice characterisation of a good man in a difficult position), Ricky Champ’s Spence (the archetypal bobby, willing to take a chance for the greater good even if that means crossing a line) and Sharlene Whyte’s Maxine (she handled the impossibly written scene following her husband’s funeral quite exceptionally).

In the central role, Lorraine Stanley seems both miscast and at sea. Much is made of the character’s sexual side, but Stanley’s Gail seems almost anti-sexual; equally, the role requires detail, care and nuance, but Stanley seems all white noise in her characterisation. Rather than make the intricate destruction of Gail’s character a painful but understandable journey, Stanley is shrill and broad, a caricature, not a real person.

Tara Hodge plays Kristal, a woman with a violent partner. Stanley’s Gail tries to encourage her to report her partner’s violence, but she repeatedly refuses. Then, when she is willing to do it, Gail, because of her own issues, refuses to help her and Kristal, as a result, is bashed senseless and with extreme violence. She is crippled, perhaps permanently, her jaw smashed; pain will be her lifelong companion. Stanley’s best moment comes in the final touching scene where she brings a drawing made by one of Kristal’s children to her and faces up to the damage she (Gail) has allowed to happen.

There is good work from both Danny Dalton (Gail’s husband, Sean) and Fraser John as Don, the senior officer on the team. But neither part is written particularly well, so there is little scope for great work. And in John’s case, his articulation, especially in noisy crowd scenes, leaves much to be desired.

Naomi Dawson provides an intriguing and effective set – it’s a quite transformative design for the Hampstead space and permits both intimacy and distance, a rare feat. James Farncombe lights everything well even if there is too much use of smoke machines by Dawson to create “mood”.

The fight scenes are excellently staged (Kate Waters) and the movement is good (Ayse Tashkiran) although occasionally the movement detracts from rather than enhances the mood or effect. There is some curious and distracting group shaking at one point, possibly meant to be atmospheric.

Modern policing is a difficult business – no doubt. Non-Caucasian and female officers may well have a harder time than their white, male brethren. But this play does little to illuminate that issue, preferring to radiate cliche and saunter down well-worn paths. There are several moments of visceral horror, the occasional insight into real tragedy and some in-your-face dialogue and situations.

This is a new play without anything new to say. It’s a missed opportunity to properly examine subjects of real importance : do Sir Robert Peel’s nine principles of policing, the principles designed to create an ethical police force, still apply today? And if they do, are they being applied?

Williams starts this play with an articulation of Peel’s nine principles but then fails to consider them in any coherent way. The programme contains an excellent essay by Lord Paddick, former Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. A play examining the issues Paddick there raises…that would be something.

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