“RIP Brian” reads the chalkboard as we are led into Custody, the Ovalhouse stage has become the site of a memorial, surrounded by flowers, candles and mementos of remembrance. The silhouette of a head hangs above the cast, who wander aimlessly amongst the tributes. And so, begins a play, created by Urbain Hayo, written by Tom Wainwright and directed by Gbemisola Ikumelo, that is deeply dark and disturbing, but pure storytelling at its best.
Brian is the apple of his mother’s eye; a success, he runs his own business, has money and a flash car. He is also black. So when he is pulled over by the police and the white officers enact terrible brutality, Brian becomes the latest young black man to die in custody.
The cloth that forms the silhouette is soon ripped away to reveal a deeper stage, just as the storyline takes on a great deal more depth. In a relatively short space of time, a huge amount of storytelling is packed in, as the family comes to terms with what’s happened; trying to carry on as normal. Then comes the long fight for justice which becomes too exhausting for all of them, but is so compelling to watch.
Karlina Grace-Paseda, playing Mother, etches out the agony in her face. Her eyes twitching almost uncontrollably as she is told of her sons demise. Kiké Brimah, as Sister, is the militant of the family determined to fight for what is right, while Sacharissa Claxton is the Lover, who knew Brian better than anyone but feels excluded from the family circle. Creator, Urbain Hayo a.k.a Urban Wolf, plays Brother, the younger sibling who was never quite as good as Brian was, yet it is he who manages, somehow, to hold the family together.
That sense of family bonds comes across strongly, it makes this heartrending story relatable and endearing, it tackles head on the fact that sometimes we find laughter in our grief and doesn’t shy away from real emotion. Custody has been beautifully staged, with an inventive set that moves and dances around the cast. There are elements of dance, or movement at least, for the cast too, who work in wonderful symmetry with each other. In flashbacks, Brian is depicted by his family members, so it is particularly poignant when it is Sister who portrays him during the arrest. You’ll see the cast members are always carrying a bag of some sort, they are literally carrying around their loss and grief, another of the ways imagery is used to great effect.
Custody is not only a beautiful example of storytelling, it is a wonderful example of a play that challenges us to see things from another point of view, without coming across as sanctimonious. Instead it uses situations, scenarios and imagery that we can all relate to, and makes us truly think about the society we live in.