Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Carthage, Finborough Theatre

Review: Carthage, Finborough Theatre

Tommy Anderson asphyxiated. Having grown aggressive with a prison officer, the 15 year-old was restrained by two others. They grabbed him and twisted his arms behind his back. When he struggled, his thumbs were cocked back until they felt like they were going to break. He was moved to a chair; his head forced between his knees; his arms wrenched upwards almost to the point of dislocation. The officers are shouting, around him, wrestling to maintain control of the situation, of themselves and of Tommy.

All this was by the book. A third prison officer oversaw the restraint and called it in accordance with official directives dictating that officers cannot release such holds without significant response from the prisoner. Tommy wouldn’t respond. He couldn’t calm down. As shouts rang out, Tommy defecated himself. He started panting. He collapsed.

Between 1999 and 2009, 86 people died after being similarly restrained in police custody. Moreover that particular delineation – ‘in police custody’ – excludes some of the highest profile restraint-related deaths of that decade.

Chris Thompson’s fine debut, which likely has next year’s most promising playwright awards sewn up already, puts that incident through a morality mangle. He wants us to work out who’s responsible, without ever feeding us the answers. Thompson’s writing is as non-judgmental as it is unflinching.

Do we blame the prison system that would employ such techniques? Or Tommy himself, for growing aggressive, arguably engineering the restraint as physical contact, as a hug by proxy; for committing the horrendous act that got him incarcerated in the first place? The prison officer that sang happy birthday, as a well-meaning wind-up? Or Tommy’s mother Anne, an ex-offender who failed to rein him in? Their shared social worker, Sue; too sympathetic perhaps, or too harsh in ruling Tommy should go into care? What about the social services system itself that monitored them from them off, never giving them a chance to take responsibility for themselves?

Carthage, said Aristotle, had one major flaw as a state: it was not a meritocracy. “Wealth is more highly esteemed than virtue,” he wrote. Tommy was born in a prison and, 15 years later, he died in one. Did he ever really have a chance?

These are the greyest of grey areas; a tangled web of causal ties. You end up compiling a pie chart in which everyone is implicated to varying degrees – where you emphasize blame being your own personal call – yet the ultimate outcome was probably unavoidable. It was certainly unforeseeable, at least in this particular instance, if not in general. It’s that cumulative inevitability that makes a hard scene to watch horrific. Tommy’s death could so easily have been avoided but, in that moment, it was unavoidable. No one’s culpable, per se, but no one’s entirely blameless. Thompson’s characters all get a really fair hearing in that. He writes with total sympathy and real moral complexity.

It’s his technique that really impresses, though. His writing is meticulous; both economic and controlled in its drip-feed of information. He cuts up the chronology cleverly and feeds us scraps and titbits, so that we’re constantly working to piece the narrative together without ever grappling against ambiguity.

Take a scene that opens with Anne in an orange vest waiting for a visitor. We assume, initially, that we’ve jumped back to her teenage detention. Then Marcus steps in. From that we know a) that she was imprisoned for the assault on him (the immediate aftermath of which we’ve already seen) and that b) he wasn’t imprisoned for Tommy’s death.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” Marcus starts. “I forgot how many doors you have to get through in these places.” We know he’s left – or lost – his job. Anne replies: “It don’t take six months to get through security.” Barely three lines and we’ve got our precise bearings on the scene.

Or another scene of Tommy and Anne laughing over the Jeremy Kyle show. Sure, you think, sharing your stash with your son isn’t model parenting, but their ragamuffin relationship is rooted in love. It takes social worker Sue to remind Anne of the times she “abandoned him…hit him, spat at him,” of the hateful messages she’s left him when high.

Robert Hastie’s production serves all this beautifully. It’s played explosively, but also with restraint. Motives and thought processes are always perfectly clear and he controls tempo and timbre with real skill, particularly in simple, slow-bleed scene changes. Strong, eloquent performances all round; from Jack McMullen as Tommy, for whom care only comes after trouble; from Toby Wharton as the ashen-faced, earnest prison officer scapegoated and abandoned by his employers, from Claire-Louise Cordwell as the hardened mother and from Lisa Palfrey as the good-humoured and patient social worker. (If there’s a complaint, it might be that Thompson, an ex-social worker himself, gives us too saintly a social worker.)

Photograph: Richard Davenport

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