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Disturbing insight into family suffering after death in police cell

Urban Wolf was challenged to create a piece of theatre which addressed problems within society, and the resultant Custody (written at the time of the London riots and produced by Ovalhouse and The Art Machine) is a thought-provoking and insightful depiction of the injustices suffered by ethnic minorities at the hands of the institutions that are supposed to protect them.

The basis for the piece is the death of a black man (Brian) while in police custody, but the focus of the performance is the impact the death has on his family, and their quest for resolution, justice, and peace.

At times gentle and humorous, while at others brutally honest, the four-person cast (three of whom are women), expertly guide the audience through the twists and turns of familial grief, evoking something remarkably familiar in the characters they portray – the grieving fiancée, outsider to the family; the campaigning sister, unflinching in her quest for justice; the ne’er-do-well younger brother wanting to escape his brother’s shadow; the grieving mother who tries to find solace through the supernatural.

With a shrine at the edges of the stage and empty silhouettes of a human head cut into the walls, the performance can at times be unsettling, and this is contributed to by rapid changes in mood and atmosphere – moments of light humour which are quickly flipped to reveal the dark realities that lie behind them (an incredibly effective and thoughtful way of addressing societal truths often ignored) – and a script that pairs the colloquial with the lyrical, and contrasts it with the cold sterility of institutional terminology.

Part of the creative process in making Custody involved interviews with people/families who had experienced police injustice in their lifetime, and incorporating these experiences into the production, lending it a sense of authenticity which makes the play feel strikingly human. The interactions between the cast members do not appear at all sensationalised and there are elements of truth running through each scene, often prompting laughs of recognition from audience members observing scenarios which are not too far removed from their own family experiences.

Custody is a story which explores and challenges our perceptions of society and the “false sense of reality that things have changed”, and under the direction of Gbemi Ikumelo, Urban Wolf’s creation hits home hard as a stark reminder that racism, injustice and prejudice have not yet been eradicated from our societies.

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