Roadkill, presented by the Barbican at Theatre Royal Stratford East, sears itself onto your conscience. It is a desperate and anguished scream that refuses to recede quietly, but rather shakes you into at least acknowledging the existence of sex-trafficking; a subject is too easily and too often swept under the carpet of urban existence and filed under ‘Someone Else’s Problem’.
Its potency comes from the proximity and intensity that comes from placing us ring-side. Perversely, though, it is both an easy and an impossible watch at the same time. On the one hand, its overarching plot – uncomfortable as the term may seem – is bog-standard, allowing us to zone out rather than forcing attention. We have seen, or rather heard tell, of all this before. A Nigerian girl, possibly as young as 14, arrives in London full of excited expectations and travel-guide titbits. None of that is to be, however, as her card has been marked for prostitution, an existence both inescapable and destitute. We see the usual array of pimps and punters and police as she is stripped of her passport, real name and dignity, trapped because there is nowhere else to go.
Nevertheless, two things provide ample compensation. First, the horrifying details – the deliveries of condoms, the sex toys inserted violently, the mouthwash that pools in the sink - that needle away at you throughout.
Second, and far more devastating, is the way that, given the extremity of the situation, naturalism becomes expressionistic, a factor elevated by our ring-side position squished inside the decrepit council flat-cum-brothel. Mercy Ojelade’s Mary repeatedly curls up into a ball and bawls: a caged animal trapped, tortured and – essentially – raped. She looks up – I can still see her face days later – like a child in urgent need of a parent, of some human comfort. She begs, silently, unable to express the pain – both physical and mental – in words. We look on as incapable of helping as she is herself. It is one of the most gut-wrenching experiences I have ever had in the theatre.
Ojelade is almost intolerably good, but the more complex performance, swinging between humanity and monster is that of Adura Onashile as Martha, an ex-prostitute promoted to managing madam. She is torn between financial self-interest, fear of her boss (John Kazek, who plays all the male roles) and genuine empathy for Mary’s situation, the horrors of which she knows all too well.
Cora Bissett’s explosive production never lets us off the hook for a moment. Not only are we – good little liberals all – implicated in the form of a gentle middle-class punter, who shows a trace of kindness to Mary but still makes use of her, Roadkill leaves no excuse for ignorance. This, after all, is not taking place in the empty space of a theatre, but in the heart of the city most of those watching call home.