Christopher Alder’s last moments, in April 1998, were unforgivably brutal. Injured in a fight at a nightclub, he took his final breath in police custody. It was an abject death: an unlawful killing that, for his campaigners, represented another instance of a black British man dying in a senseless way.
Yet what is marked about Ryan Calais Cameron’s astounding play, written in rap-like rhyming verse and tracing the minutiae of its unnamed character’s final day, is that it bursts with life, zest, humour and hedonism even as it hurtles towards tragedy.
First staged as a solo show in 2019 and now created by Nouveau Riche and Soho theatre for a screen version, it becomes a perfect, if eviscerating, nugget of dramatic performance in its new medium; theatrical in setting but also sharply focused and dreadful in its filmic intimacy. When the violence comes, the camera seems to throw the punches. In a claustrophobic closeup, it tightens its gaze around Richard Blackwood’s face so we cannot avert our eyes, even as his character chokes on his own blood.
Until those excruciating moments, Typical feels like a day in the life of an urban everyman, granular in its detail, Joycean in its steam-of-consciousness as he wakes up, puts on the toast, thinks about his marriage, divorce, an office flirtation, and gets going. It’s a typical day, says Blackwood, but he is determined to make it a special one with a big night out.
The language is playful, kinetic, partly in patois, with sentences that syncopate and waver between poetry and song, and fizz with wordplay: “Looking at the weather, weather looking back in anger, weather look mad, weather looking temperamental, menstrual, weather looking bad.” And later, when the police handcuff him: “I’m being manhandled … heavy-handed men, heavy-hearted men.” It moves at speed and has a polyphonic effect, making the set feel as if it is occupied by more than just one actor. Blackwood keeps up with every note, mesmerising us with every tic, smile or grimace.
Blackwood’s hero is instantly likable, brushing off daily microaggressions (“Tell myself it’s not about race”), talking himself down from a confrontation when three white men first round on him at the nightclub (“I know the cost”), and intent on being the bigger man. When the heat rises, Blackwood inhabits the role of this father and former paratrooper more fully. There is an exquisite balance between vulnerability and agitation, physicality and inner life.
Directed by Anastasia Osei-Kuffour, Blackwood emphatically feels this last day in his bones, from the sleep rubbed from his eyes to the grumbling of his stomach and his hangover. Yet there is a sense of the hyper-real in the set, which is minimalist and modern: a cube of a room, with a few boxes that are manoeuvred to create new atmospheres in an instant. Sorcha Stott-Strzala’s lighting and Duramaney Kamara’s sound do much of the work in switching scenes, from bedroom to nightclub, with discombobulating effects.
The final scene takes us through the harrowing details of Alder’s death: the police video footage suggesting monkey noises were made as he lay dying, and the handcuffing and dragging of his body into the police station in Hull. We also hear the all too familiar refrain “I can’t breathe” uttered, time and again in the last moments of his internal monologue. Names of those others who have died in UK police custody fill the screen at the end along with a final note: “This film is dedicated to all those who have died because of systemic racism.”
If Calais Cameron’s script wants to convey a typical day in the life of a black British male, then this film highlights an ending that is also all too typical.
Typical is available online via Soho Theatre On Demand until 31 March.