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DOWNSTAIRS at Hampstead Theatre is an intimate space and it’s the perfect claustrophobic cocoon in which to watch south London gang The Firm unravel as hidden truths from the past come to light in Roy Williams’s new play.
In this story about ageing, belonging and history Gus, Leslie, Trent and Sel are joined by Fraser — who isn’t quite who he says he is — as they are waiting for Shaun to come and celebrate getting out of prison in what turns out to be a reckoning as much as a party.
The language is wonderful and there’s a poetic rhythm to the everyday banter and the nuance of bar-room chat.
Violent but vulnerable, the deep bonds between them are touching and when Trent (George Eggay) talks down Sel (Clarence Smith) after an explosive outburst, the understanding and sense of care is explicit and affecting.
Williams does two clever things in forcing the audience to see below the surface of south London gang chat and, beyond the criminal surface, confront the humanity beneath. And he asks us to question the ways in which young people today face a different criminal landscape, one which is complex and harsh.
The cast brings Williams’s play to life with a brilliant verve as they drink, fight and weep and at the centre of the action is Ray Fearon’s Gus, a man with a lot of secrets. But it is Makir Ahmed’s Fraser who’s the revelation.
Simultaneously young, tough and exposed, he cuts a moving figure and Ahmed brings an evocative physicality to the role.
Denis Lawson directs with impressive control as the cast move from violence to banter with disturbing slickness in what’s a thoroughly entertaining and impressive production.
Runs until June 8, box office hampsteadtheatre.com.
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