10-year-old Damilola Taylor had only been in Britain for three months when in November 2000 he was set upon by youths as he walked home from his after-school computer club at Peckham Public Library. Knifed in the leg, he struggled into the stairwell of a high-rise block of flats where he collapsed and bled his life away, dying either from the stab wound or from falling onto a broken bottle lying on the floor.
This horrible tragedy, which I very well remember, is one of the background inspirations, if such a word can be used in this context, for debbie tucker green's random (the lower case is intentional - Ed.), originally a 2011 screenplay for Channel 4 and then re-worked as a theatre drama. It's being staged this week by Klaxon Productions, a group of 2nd year students, comprising here a crew of six and just the one actor who plays all four members of an Afro-Caribbean family as they go about their daily lives one morning. The sister, acting as the narrative voice, gets up yawningly and goes off to work, the mother makes the breakfast, looking for willing mouths to taste her burnt porridge, the sister's young brother leaves for school and their father recovers from his night shift.
tucker green has given herself just 50 mins of running time – wisely, given the monologue format – so there's no scope to look in the round at what the then shadow Home Secretary Tony Blair was talking about when in 1993 promising "to be tough on crime and the causes of crime". Here she depicts the shocking human toll of street violence, getting right to the heart of the effect of disaster upon ordinary people going about humdrum tasks at home. But she does also manage to encourage her audience to extrapolate beyond this immediate tragedy and ponder on one paralysing feature of the way the mean streets of urban Britain can present themselves to its denizens.
The drama's setting could hardly be simpler. As the audience takes its seats we find a young black woman slumped on a white chair centre-stage, asleep. Behind her is a beige backcloth punctured by family photographs – director John Livesey told me they are actor Francesca Amewudah-Rivers' own family photos. The lights come up, she wakes fitfully and breaks into her monologue, halting at first, of the morning's events, trivial and then building in intensity.
In scene 1, we hear in succession from the four family members, and tucker green with clever variety has them narrating, hectoring, musing, complaining, joking, offering homilies, pondering and daydreaming. The transition from normality to disaster comes upon us with ever-accelerating pace. The switches from character to character which might otherwise be a bit tough to follow are marked by swift lighting transitions, and the tiny but vital scene change for scene 2, taking us forward a week or ten days, is skilfully done in the pitch-dark. These things have been carefully orchestrated by Livesey, and of course his close and constant collaboration with his actor will have been key to the drama's impact.
I hardly know what aspect of that performance by Amewudah-Rivers to praise the most. As I looked and listened to her, I found it next to impossible to conceive of a more dynamic and versatile performance from any other actor. She spoke both powerfully and pathetically as required, her characterisation of the four family members varying from the initial grumbles of the sister to a louder, sharper tone for the brother, to a broadening of accent – not far off breaking into patois - for the mother, and to something of a reasoning delivery for the father. Even the hardly-heard commands of a teacher left a strong impression.
Acting with her whole body, she moved around the space sometimes in a feline way, then volatile and rushing, then still and staring as she asks: "since when does a man bleed brown? When the blood is old and dry". In scene 2 she's required to stand and deliver for minutes on end at a microphone; yet not once did she lose our attention, such was her voice control. At the end she slumps to the ground, for the moment beaten, gritting out: "how come random had to happen to him?"
When the lights came up, a man and woman the audience stood and cheered Francesca Amewudah-Rivers. We knew we'd seen something special.
It's heartening enough to find an Oxford student production that's featuring one black actor and a multi-racial crew. When that production is dealing with an urgent social and political malaise that lurks far and yet not so far from the Oxford student experience, and when it's propelled by a inspirational acting performance, then attendance at the rest of the play's run this week becomes if not precisely a pleasure, then very definitely a duty.