FringeReview UK 2020
Directed by Andy Jordan, with Set and Costumes by Anthony Lambie, Composer and Sound Designer Simon Slater and lighting Robbie Butler. Fight Direction’s by D. J. Johnson.
Tony Tortora’s a dramatist who’s come to writing after many experiences, not least four years in the U.S. military. Making his home in the UK, he’s forged idiomatic drama out of turning a police story inside-out and making the everyday the point. No car-chases, and only a gun-blast or two.
The premiere of Cops at Southwark’s Little is one of those unexpected gems we take for granted at this playhouse: a distillation almost, here aided by Andy Jordan productions.
Procedure, long service, arrogant rookies, a possible mob mole. Tortora’s learnt a thing or three about Brit situation. It’s too pacey to be New York Public Theater fare, but the same verismo informing the Richard Nelson school of naturalism infuses this five-hander (mainly four-hander) set in the closing months of 1957, and in Chicago. Between Sputnik and just before Van Cliburn regaining U.S honour by – of all things – winning the Moscow Piano Competition the next year.
Cops zooms in on mainly time-expiring policemen and a young one too cocky to learn. That redemptively changes. But this is a slick, clever play. Behind the veneer of inside-out lurks outside-out, the plot engine of doors slamming decisively down corridors.
We alternate between office badinage, the ritual of the chief bringing croissants and coffee (unless too far, then he drinks it himself) for Stan, as a curious mark of respect. What has Stan done to earn this between office faffs and failed stakeouts?
There’s Roger Alborough’s Stan – Harry Stanton; so he hates being called Stanley by needling superiors or rookies. He’s 66, has been in the force since 1899. Takes getting used to. Alborough’s rumpled dignity, his easily riled, essentially kind nature is of a man who can’t bear to retire and face his wife. He repeats stories, deludes himself over small things like crosswords. And infuriates police secretaries: deaf Mabel or confused Dolores. He is though one of the moral centres of the play: the once-fine policeman who’s not as quick as he was yet can surprise you.
The slightest character, crucial but underwritten, Ben Keaton’s (Joseph) Hurley, is the same age and joined at the same time. He’s always put out on roofs on stakeouts; unsurprisingly he’s not up to the job. He’s a bit Dad’s Army, an Arnold Ridley of Precinct 13, though trying to take hot coffee, not make water. Keaton plays him with hapless pathos, bundled out back into the cold by those who despise the poor man and won’t give him even five minutes’ relief. He can surprise you too.
Daniel Francis’ Rosey – with the unbeatable combo of Roosevelt Washington – is sharper younger and unusual as a policeman of colour treated as an equal by his peers. Chicago North and South sides are famously the most segregated in the States. Though mentioned this doesn’t get into the play. ‘He has to be more careful’ is said of him as the sole explanation. Rosey’s the prime merit choice for promotion: sharp, steady, wise and taking no shit from his erstwhile antagonist. Francis plays him with watchful dignity and a temper just kept in check.
He comes to blows with his tormenter though. This is the Elvis lookalike rich man’s son: Jack Flammiger’s Foxy (William Fox) is a study in Brylcream, a man who ironically hasn’t met Elvis when Stan in fact has at a concert he’s dragged to by his granddaughter. At 22 Foxy bought his position by proxy, his father eager to bankroll very police association and club. They owe him. Foxy though knows his father’s not what he seems and tacitly, Rosey’s discovery of his background means he’ll have to prove himself. Flammiger’s svelte young pup is all pout and disdain, making notes on them all for a novel, impatient of what happened here in 1899. And full of talk of his red-all over-girlfriend. He ought to be a mite more cautious. He can be surprised
James Sobol Kelly’s Eulee (Paul Ulasiewicz), has followed his father into the police. Having lost his wife and daughter as we learn, he has only his senile father to return to. At a late point another character reveals by pure instinct an unerring amount about his desperately lonely existence. He’s of course the conduit for knowledge, not rumour. Sobol Kelly’s approach is to play him with an understated beat of lean desperation. Only Stan and to an extent Rosey get it. But in the climactic scene another does too, in fact he gets a lot of things and people very fast.
Directed by Andy Jordan with glowering pace, set and costumes are by Anthony Lambie. They’re split downstage with four desks and typewriters, a couple of filing desks, all c. 1957. And as it’s Windy City upstage two rooms shudder under chilly-blasting sash windows in an empty warehouse for a couple of stakeouts. A door with one character eternally fleeing from the cold shivers open stage-left. Composer and sound designer Simon Slater crosses period rock music with stray street sounds and inevitable sirens. Robbie Butler’s lighting is refracted through one interior and a gloomy night-hawks splay of street lamps in the stake-out scenes. Fight Direction’s by D. J. Johnson.
The plot – trying to get a mob-man to escape and testify, continually thwarted by the mole with insider info – is conventional. The way Tortora handles it isn’t. The stakeouts, far from being simply tense plot-points, allow an unfolding of clash and rapprochement, a greater understanding and revelation. Rosy and Foxy confront one another murderously in one scene that doesn’t help matters.
But in another two, Foxy with Stan, Eulee with Rosey, we see an unforced grain of humanity work itself through. Equally there’s moments of excitement, with revelation for more than one policeman. And after a denouement, there’s two final climaxes as blunders are faced, exonerated because of mitigation and a direct plea; and even after, a twist. The performances are universally excellent, though the weight falls particularly on Alborough and Francis, both pitch-perfect. A first-rate distillation of cop drama, into the theatre of cop’s lives.