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The Theatreguide.London Review

Tricycle Theatre     September 2009

On July 22, 2005 London police, convinced they had a suicide bomber before them, shot and killed the totally innocent John Charles de Menezes in Stockwell underground station.

After several inquiries produced conflicting stories and murmurs of cover-up, a coroner's inquest in 2008 returned an open verdict but perhaps the definitive account.

Now Kieron Barry has skilfully and sensitively winnowed down ten weeks of testimony into a remarkably clear, balanced and dramatic 90-minute verbatim play that achieves almost classically tragic effect in its depiction of a chain of events leading inexorably toward an inescapable ending.

First, a word about Barry's very successful editing technique. Dozens of witnesses - officers, eye witnesses, cops on the scene - were asked about the same events, and Barry cuts and pastes together their various answers into a single narrative line.

So, for example, a question about a particular order will be answered in rapid succession by the person who gave it, the one who transmitted it and the one who received it.

We are never in doubt as to where we are in the chronology, and can clearly see the moments or sources of confusion or error.

Barry has essentially two stories to tell, one about how a string of breakdowns in police planning, intelligence and communications led to decisions made in ignorance and orders misheard or misinterpreted.

The second lies in the not-unsympathetic portrait of the armed police on the spot, forced to make a split-second decision that could have been tragic either way.

As is often the case with tragedy, the first story would be almost comic if its result were not so horrible. Staking out a terror suspect, the officers back in HQ didn't even know that the address was a block of flats, so there would be no way of knowing which flat people were going in or out of.

One particularly dreadful string of replies to questions follows a horrific game of Chinese Whispers, as a surveillance officer's report that de Menezes, seen leaving the building, might be worth questioning just to eliminate him somehow turns into a definite identification as the bomber and an order to stop him at all costs.

The second thread of Barry's story focuses on the two highly-trained armed-response officers, told that the man in front of them might very well be about to blow up a tube train and themselves, and forced in seconds to make a deadly decision.

Its clear moral is that all the training and psychological testing in the world cannot possibly prepare for that moment, and whatever one's judgement of the police operation as a whole, one cannot leave the play without sympathy for the men on the spot.

With nothing more than a group of almost randomly-placed chairs and a cast of eight each quadrupling roles, director Sophie Lifschutz keeps the story consistently clear and the pace measured but unremitting.

Much of the narrative line is ably provided by Kevin Quarmby as the coroner and Jack Klaff as a series of lawyers.

Helen Worsley is particularly chilling as the officer in charge, unwilling to admit that anything went wrong, much less that she bears any blame, and Shaun Stone and Alex Tanner believable and moving as the cops with the guns and a lifetime of nightmares ahead.

Gerald Berkowitz

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