Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Paul Tomlinson: SUS

By | Published on Friday 16 September 2022

Opening shortly at The Park Theatre is a staging of ‘SUS’, a play by the late – and renowned – script and screenwriter Barrie Keeffe.

Written and set in 1979, and based on real events, the play depicts the brutal treatment of a young black man by police officers. It’s a subject which is, of course, sadly still just as relevant now as it was back then. 

The play is helmed by director Paul Tomlinson, who was friends with the playwright for many years. I spoke to him to find out more about the play, the creative team behind it, and about Paul himself. 

CM: Can you start by telling us something about the plot of ‘SUS’? What story does it tell? 
PT: It’s based on a true story. On the night of Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 electoral landslide, a young man, Delroy, a young black father, is brought into a police interrogation chamber by two white police officers.

They proceed to accuse him of an appalling crime and coerce a confession out of him, subjecting him to appalling racial abuse and seeing him solely through the eyes of their own prejudice.

The title refers to the law that Delroy thinks he was brought in under, ‘suspect under suspicion’, now commonly known as stop and search. It’s a harrowing play that leaves you wondering about what counts as innocence or guilt, and brings to light how similar today is to 40 years ago. 

CM: What themes are explored through the play? 
PT: It’s a very powerful play in that it doesn’t shy away from showing the actions of the police officers as being intertwined with the society behind it.

It addresses the preconceptions, biases and prejudices within the actions of the police, and the way people of colour are forced to behave within the system, even when they’re completely innocent.

It’s politically astute and stunningly written, and will leave audiences shaken to their core. 

CM: It’s set in 1979, but – and you alluded to this – the piece remains very relevant to contemporary audiences. What has changed since then?
PT: It would be a better world if it was no longer relevant to contemporary audiences. But yes, it is.

Whilst the language remains set in 1979, the attitudes of the characters will be all too recognisable to contemporary audiences who have seen black and brown men disproportionately affected by stop and search laws.

I think since 1979 there’s more awareness of the stories of the victims of police violence, both due to social media and through societal change. But awareness without real change is not enough, and ‘SUS’ showcases how much of that era still remains. 

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the playwright, Barrie Keeffe?
PT: I first met Barrie shortly after his enormous success with his film ‘The Long Good Friday’. I was directing his play ‘Frozen Assets’ and he asked if he could come to a rehearsal and bring the American director who was about to direct it in New York.

He came, was extremely pleasant to all the company, and liked what we were doing. He continued coming and we became good friends. I have done a number of productions of his plays since then and spent two holidays with him and his wife in Italy.  

It is with particular poignancy that I embarked on this directorial revival, having lost Barrie in late 2019. It was the end of not only a forty year friendship, but also a strong working relationship founded on mutual respect, trust, political viewpoints and creative styles.

That said, there is no greater homage we can pay to great writers than to allow their work to live on.

CM: What made you want to direct this particular play? Did you have a specific vision for it? 
PT: When I first read the play ten years ago, I was immediately blown away. The fact that it is based on a true story makes it all the more powerful, and I wanted to show how unfortunately relevant it is.

I wanted to highlight both the stories of those who suffer at the hands of the police, but also the police themselves who are either guilty or complicit. Every line of the play is packed with weight and meaning, and I wanted to work with the actors to showcase the impactful nature of Barrie’s writing. 

CM: Can you tell us about the cast? 
PT: Stedroy Cabey, Alexander Neal and Fergal Coghlan are three incredibly hardworking and compassionate actors.

There’s a constant level of communication and respect in the rehearsal room to make sure everyone is always on the same page.

These are three very difficult characters for any actor, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working with them throughout this process. 

CM: Can you tell us about Dilated Theatre and your role in the company?
PT: Having worked with Dilated Theatre Company on their previous staging of ‘SUS’ as well as several subsequent projects, we’ve always had a strong working relationship based on creative and personal similarities between the team.

There’s a real sense of ambition within the team, to create plays that are both powerful experiences for audiences and which encourage them to engage with the hard hitting issues of today, whether or not doing so is a comfortable thing.

CM: Can we go back a bit? What led you to a career in the theatre? Was it always what you aspired to do? 
PT: I was born and brought up in Zimbabwe. Although I never saw a theatre production until I was about sixteen, I can’t remember a time when I did not want to be an actor.

I studied for four years at the University Of Cape Town which had a drama school attached. I graduated with a BA and a Speech And Drama Diploma.

After this I came to England and got work at the Mermaid Theatre in a play, ‘Virtue In Danger’, which transferred into the West End. I then returned to the Mermaid in Brecht’s ‘Galileo’ followed by eighteen months acting in Sally Miles’ Margate Stage Company.

During this time I realised that I was enjoying rehearsals much more than performing and I become involved in the whole process of directing which I found fascinating. I decided to change from acting to directing and have been doing it ever since.

CM: What have been the highlights of your career thus far?
PT: The three years I spent at the Salisbury Playhouse running Theatrescope was an intense but amazing period where I got to work on a wide variety of great projects.

And then adapting The Who’s ‘Tommy’ and seeing that have great success in the West End. And of course, the last four – now five – plays I’ve directed as part of Dilated Theatre.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future? 
PT: I want to continue directing, which is both totally absorbing and enjoyable.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this? 
PT: Whilst I can’t reveal them at this stage, I have a number of projects in the pipeline. 

‘SUS’ is on at The Park Theatre from 21 Sep-15 Oct. Read more about it, and book tickets, on the venue website here.

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