It must be hard being David Cameron – you can hardly listen to the radio or turn on the TV without coming across a cultural icon that despises you. Johnny Marr forbade David Cameron from liking The Smiths. Thom Yorke said he’d “sue the living shit” out of him if he used any Radiohead songs in his campaign. Adele called him a “wally”. (It seems only Gary Barlow likes him, perhaps the greatest indictment of all.) And if he’d wandered into the Albany Theatre last week, he would have been subjected to an uncompromising and eloquent musical critique of the Britain he has created.
The Broke ‘N’ Beat Collective focuses on young people within the “Big Society”. Having gathered stories from interviews in London and Liverpool, the performers explicitly announce that they are here to represent, but not speak for, the youths that they have met. What follows is truthful to their hardships without portraying them as hopeless victims – neither poverty porn nor pity party. Hopeful without being patronising, informative without being preachy, its raw materials are their struggles and challenges, vulnerability and strength.
An ever-present theme in the production is young people being told to turn the volume down, but there was little chance of that in an auditorium reverberating with bass and beats. The Collective featured beat-boxer Jack Hobbs (aka Hobbit), dancer Ryan Harston (aka LoGisTics), singer and poet Elisha Howe (aka Elektric) and puppeteer Mohsen Nouri, who together crafted an experience they dubbed “gig-theatre”. Sometimes it was so loud and the lyrics so fast that it was hard to keep up with every word, conveying an urgent relentlessness to be heard.
A wall of stacked cardboard formed an unassuming backdrop, until one by one, boxes were picked and unpacked to reveal a compelling narrative. Each time, the contents – a few magazines, some toys, just stuff – at first held limited meaning to outsiders, and each time a closer look showed them to be someone’s whole world contained in a small box. Inside the first few were miniature inner-city streets and urban parks, which were filmed live using a phone and the video beamed directly onto the back wall. Whether you were looking at the cardboard town, the person filming, the phone or the projection, it was all meaningful. It made me think about streets becoming movie sets now that everyone has the capability to capture them on camera: that’s what it feels like when you’re young and living in the same place – that your neighbourhood is everything though it may look like nothing. It reminded me that phone cameras are protection – the masses are now armed with devices that record and expose injustice, important to youths subjected to constant suspicion. And I also wondered about the way film seems to lend an importance to places and events that they might not otherwise have had – that thing of forgetting about poverty until a celebrity visits it. So the Collective’s sung stories of chicken shops and austerity, 99 flakes and MDMA, felt both epic and everyday. The video also felt a bit like CCTV: not only are young people filming their world, but the world is filming them. As soon as there was outside intrusion from authorities – a helicopter swooping overhead, a police car speeding in – the people and their stories were disturbed, the neighbourhood shut up and packed away. Every bit of The Broke ‘N’ Beat Collective was like this: thoughtful, witty, multi-layered and resonant.
Sometimes when a box was opened, whole puppets clambered out, and not only did these characters feel realistic, but actually real. Omar was literally a hoodie, with a puppeteer’s arm through one sleeve and another controlling his empty hood. He was faceless (and therefore voiceless), a representation of not only how society sees young men like him, but how he views himself. Omar was diffident and shy, afraid to join in and quick to anger, keen to stay quiet but desperate to be listened to. His returning presence weaved a continuing narrative through the piece, and was concluded with a masterful payoff.
Then there was Joanne, the paper puppet who sang of childhood abuse, eating disorders and self-harm. My hand stuck to my notepad, sticky with sweat, as Joanne picked up a pair of scissors – at any moment, she could cut herself to shreds, a terrifying act all the more violent for being bloodless, that would see her wilt and fall apart. Paper was the perfect tool to display this young person’s vulnerability, and in the end it was also how Joanne shared her strength, holding up a series of messages that would be moving for any audience, but potentially momentous if watched by girls in a similar situation.
In a show about being heard, even David Cameron has his turn: in a Cassetteboy-style mash-up about youth unemployment, you can hear him moralise about right and wrong. But the production doesn’t just crassly give DC the finger – The Broke ‘N’ Beat Collective offers a sensitive exploration of the lives and difficulties of Britain’s young people who are too readily judged and dismissed, and too rarely engaged with or listened to. This is a piece of political theatre that should be seen by every young person, and every MP. Or maybe just everyone.
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