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'Stop and Search', Arcola Theatre

Stop and Search is a fast-paced indictment of an ever-changing Britain, focused on Akim, a mournful African refugee trying to cross the Calais border. Writer Gabriel Gdabamosi probes perceptions of trust in a topical exploration of who (if anyone) has the right to be free and creates an intentional, uncomfortable experience for the audience.

Evening Standard

The Arcola’s stage is unusually round and forces the observation of Akim's every move in a telling evocation of modern distrust. Throughout the performance, we are uncomfortably aware of the boundaries ahead of Akim and our presence is just another obstacle for him to surmount. The three coalescent scenes provide a whirlwind of explosive accusations, questionable moralities and dingy realism. Although, Stop and Search has never been more relevant, the execution is wanting. There are moments of brilliance, however, in its entirety, the script is more convoluted than effective, as we are left behind in obscurity wondering, like Akim, quite how we got there.

Before the play begins, the audience is unsure what to make of Eleanor Bull’s painfully stark set design - it is a perfectly claustrophobic depiction of both a murky back-alley and the inside of a stolen car; two leather car seats are propped upright centre-stage with a half-filled Coke bottle (which we later find out to be urine). Only when the play begins, does the brilliance of Bull's design come to life. Complimented by Richard Williamson’s eerie fluorescent lighting, the absolute bareness of the set is a cold reminder of the harsh, and often life-threatening, conditions refugees face with no room for material extravagances. It is here, in the first scene, where Munashe Chirisa (Akim) shines in his performance. Contrasted by the bombastic and insulting Tel, an English thief with his own set of problems, Akim is the embodiment of sorrow. Barely engaging in conversation, his subtle facial gestures and the slow removal of his sodden clothing, are actions of a dancer. Though Tel’s abusive tirade demands our attention, it is the look in Akim's eyes, throughout this opening scene, which evokes the tragic poignancy that Gbadamosi is trying to convey. It is so applicable to our unforgiving, dog-eat-dog, existence.

Following this, unfortunately, the play slides into empty digression of uninteresting tropes. We follow Tone, a boorish cop with a prostate problem, and Lee, a passive transgender officer, in their unfruitful stakeout of Tel, whom we met in the previous scene. The utilisation of dated gender tropes is tiresome as Lee’s voice dwindles under Tone’s crass insinuations. The superficiality means we can never truly connect with these characters and instead, are forced to wait for something (anything?) to actually happen. Akim returns in the third scene as a taxi driver, yet we are forced to listen to the uninspiring Bev (the only female character in the whole play) endlessly lamenting, almost nonsensically, about her desirability.

The audience is left yearning for any backstory of Akim’s life: how he got to Britain, the kind of man he was before he became a refugee; yet these questions remain unanswered throughout. For such a distressing and thought-provoking story, is it impossible not to think of the missed opportunities - if the production was slowed down, the overall effect would have been much more moving. Instead, the constant stream of dialogue leaves the audience grasping for something tangible and lasting. Furthermore, the occasional fumble over words shows the cast are struggling too. The moments of genuine emotion are lovely, and the odd wisecracks are a welcome relief from the pulsating intensity filling the room. Stop and Search is definitely a play of potential; the elements of a great play are there but they fail to evolve into something substantial, leaving us affected by the story, but utterly confused by the performance.

Edited by Evangeline Stanford

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