COPS, Southwark Playhouse

COPS, a new play by Tony Tortora about policemen in 1950s Chicago, has a decent central theme but doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be.

Read the programme and you’ll come away with the impression that the intent was to focus on the “characters and their inter-personal struggles”. Watch the promo video and you’ll assume this is some kind of contemporary theatrical take on 1950’s police procedurals (such as Dragnet), where the emphasis is more on the plot and catching bad guys.

But COPS the play? It’s somewhere in between, and not entirely successfully.

Paul “Eulee” Ulasiewicz (James Sobol Kelly), a 50-something widower who cares for his elderly father and doesn’t have much of a personal life, leads a team of mismatched cops who are trying to catch a local mobster:

  • Harry “Stan” Stanton (Roger Alborough), grumpy, in his sixties and presumably nearing retirement, has been on the force forever despite allegations of corruption earlier in his career.
  • Roosevelt “Rosey” Washington (Daniel Francis), is a middle-aged African American who won’t take any nonsense from his white colleagues.
  • And William “Foxey” Fox (Jack Flammiger) is a 22-year-old university graduate with a rich Dad. Some people wonder why he’s doing the job.

Helping out Eulee’s team on stakeouts is Irishman Joseph Hurley (Ben Keaton), a cop perceived to be so stupid that no one wants him on their team. So, Eulee sticks him on the roof of the warehouse they’re staking out.

Eulee, perhaps not surprisingly, struggles to get this group to work together effectively, and after several bungled stakeouts, and no arrests, the Chicago Police Department’s internal affairs team takes an interest. Is one of the team tipping-off the mob? And as the core team realises what’s going on, they start to suspect each other, each positing their theories as to why Eulee, Stan, Rosey or Foxey could be the mole.

Problem is, with the emphasis being on the characters, and with most of the dialogue being naturalistic conversations between them, the exposition of this potentially exciting plot doesn’t happen very effectively. In fact, with so much of the dialogue concerning the gripes and squabbles between the four characters, the plot can appear to be almost non-existent at times. Scene-after-scene ends with a whimper, or with the audience left wondering what its point had been. And the end reveal of the mole seems clumsy, with barely any set-up.

On the positive side, the cast do a great job with the numerous office banter scenes, which are probably the highlights of this play, and the music and sound design by Simon Slater and Jack Baxter provides a highly effective tension-building soundscape to the production.

The central idea of COPS, a story about uncovering a mole but with an emphasis on characters rather than plot, is a good one – and it certainly worked for the spy drama Tinker Tailor Solider Spy – but this particular script needs a re-think and a re-write.

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