Saturday 4 November 2017

Theatre review: The Firm

Roy Williams was last at Hampstead Theatre writing about the police; now he comes to the Downstairs space with a look at the other side of the law. Gus (Clinton Blake) was once the leader of The Firm, the brains behind one of South London's most successful gangs of robbers and the only one of them never to be caught and jailed. Now pushing fifty they've all pretty much left that life behind them, and true to form Gus has had the most success since going legit: The play takes place in a wine bar he's about to reopen, one of a number of investments he owns. He and right-hand man Leslie (Jay Simpson) are preparing a party for Shaun, the last of the gang to still be in prison, to celebrate his release. Trent (Delroy Atkinson) and Selwyn (Clarence Smith) soon join them, but there's no sign of the guest of honour.

In fact it starts to look like Shaun is steering clear of his old friends, and instead they get an uninvited and unwelcome reminder that they might still be spoken of as underworld legends, but they're very much yesterday's men.

20-year-old Fraser (Simon Coombs) has come along with Selwyn, claiming to be a distant nephew; but Trent and Leslie both recognise him too, as someone who's been insidiously planting himself into their lives. He says he's a member of the new gang currently running the area, and wants the firm to help him pull off a supermarket robbery that'll help him climb up their ranks. Needless to say there's really more to his appearance than that, but while the plot twists aren't entirely unexpected, they're too well-executed to spoil.

Williams is such an underrated writer, whose ear for dialogue is what makes The Firm absorbing very early on with its mix of low-key gangster thriller, character comedy and family drama. Denis Lawson's production has five strong performances that bring the characters and their group dynamic to life, making it clear how that dynamic falls apart once the other members of the gang find out something Gus has been hiding from them.

Alex Marker designs a slick space that reflects more of who Gus is trying to sell himself as than the reality of his past, and it's quite an intimate but exposing space for the gang's secrets to fall out. The Firm's a tricky one to write about because its effect comes both from the turns of its plot and the subtlety of its writing, neither of which are easy to convey without giving away too much. But it's one that quickly drew me in and kept me there, Williams once again delivering a rounded story in a punchily short time.

The Firm by Roy Williams is booking until the 2nd of December at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs.

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Robert Day.

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