Downstairs Theatre, Belvoir St Theatre
October 30, 2018

A young woman walks down the street, shell-shocked, having just received some terrible news. She briefly marvels at how, inexplicably, life seems to be continuing as normal. For Sister, tragedy has infected this previously unremarkable day, turning her world upside down and inside out. How can it be that people are going about their business as usual when everything has come crashing down around her?

Zahra Newman in random. Photo © Daniel Boud 

random comes to Belvoir’s Downstairs Theatre after touring in 2010, and what a potent piece of theatre it remains. In this play by debbie tucker green (who deliberately spells her name without capitals), lucidly directed by Leticia Cáceres, the brilliant Zahra Newman effortlessly portrays four members of an Afro-Caribbean family in London: Mother, Father, Sister and Brother. With a runtime of just 50 minutes, green layers detail upon detail in this compassionate portrait of a family, taking us through the mundane rhythms of their day-to-day life until it is horribly interrupted by a random act of violence.

Written in 2008 as a response to the highly politicised subject of knife crime in London, green cuts through all the hot air by grounding her play in the domestic sphere, reminding us of the very real lives at stake. She bestows on this family her warm and considered gaze, perfectly establishing the teasing relationship between Sister and Brother, the affectionate patience of Mother, and the taciturn nature of Father. Aided by Rachel Burke’s seamless lighting and Jacob Nash’s unadorned set, Newman moves between each character like quicksilver. Adept at both comedy and tragedy, her performance is subtle, unselfconscious and entirely giving, suggesting the rich interior lives of each family member.

Zahra Newman in random. Photo © Daniel Boud 

Green’s script is a lean thing, without a wasted word, and it’s threaded through with detail to rip the heart out. Time and again you are struck by how astutely human nature has been rendered onstage, and how closely grief can follow joy. How true to life it is when the family recoil at the oddness of the police inviting them to have a cup of tea in their home. And how moving when Mother, distraught at receiving such horrible news, still experiences pride at Daughter’s mistrust of these interlopers. Beautifully sharp turns of phrase also lodge in the mind, as when Daughter describes a group of grief-struck onlookers as “brazen baby women”, or when Mother lays out the family credo, “Never trouble trouble until trouble troubles you.” As the play reaches its climax, speech becomes almost poetic in its intensity, as if mere words are insufficient to express their depth of feeling.

Zahra Newman in random. Photo © Daniel Boud 

What begins as a vivid day in the life thus gives way to a keen dissection of grief. Mundane things become important reminders of another’s bodily existence, poignantly captured in the play’s concluding moments as Sister remarks on the quietness of a house that was earlier so full of life. Sorrow clings to everything, the walls heavy with it, and the audience greets it all with a similar silence.

random is at Belvoir until November 11