BROKE 'N' BEAT COLLECTIVEUnity Theatre 13/2/16
Hip hop, puppets and theatre are three elements usually – and most of the time, thankfully – enjoyed as entirely separate entities. So it was perhaps with some trepidation that Liverpool gig-goers learned of the arrival in the city of BROKE ‘N’ BEAT COLLECTIVE, a new production written by Keith Saha and Sue Buckmaster. A joint effort from renowned companies 20 Stories High and Theatre-Rites, the venture sees the unlikely combination of beat-boxer Hobbit, breakdancer LoGisTics, singer/rapper Elektric and puppeteer Mohsen combine their talents to deliver a somewhat beguiling rumination on the youth of 21st century England.
To begin proceedings, the four artists are welcomed to the stage by rapturous applause from an audience much younger and clearly more familiar with the performers than your humble reviewer. They launch into two songs that demonstrate their differing musical abilities, be it impressive vocal displays from Elektric or the staggering technical ability of Hobbit, who deftly mixes beat-boxing and live looping to create a symphonic bed on which the others can build.
After this uplifting and inclusive experience, the performers transform from musicians to thespians, and as the lighting dims to emphasise this shift in aesthetic Mohsen and LoGisTics take centre stage. Before them is a cardboard box which when opened becomes an inner-city urban setting. In what is one of the more impressive technological feats of the evening, a camera is used to film this setting whilst the image is simultaneously projected at the back of the stage. A clever usage of cardboard props, such as a miniature police car and helicopter, conveys the sense of oppression felt by English youths on council estates across the country. Police-imposed curfews, we are told, prevent young people from expressing themselves through activities which usually occur at night, such as break-dancing.
The storytelling now moves into more specific realms as we are regaled with a tale about Jack, a promiscuous and irresponsible boy who impregnates a woman after a one-night stand. The fairly predictable situation of abandoned responsibility and absentee fatherhood follows, but less predictable is the way in which this story is portrayed. A large cardboard box – by now a familiar prop – is placed upon Logistics’ head, who then provides us with a dizzying dance display, in the character of Jack, set to the aptly named song Jack In The Box, performed by Elektric and Hobbit. As the story unfolds, the box is adorned with an array of other cardboard facial features in order to convey the differing emotions of Jack’s moral struggle, which ultimately ends in a reunion with his son.
At this point things take a pretty strange turn. For around 15 minutes we sit through the story of Paper Girl. The character takes the form of a puppet controlled by Mohsen and we learn that she has begun to self-harm due to past sexual abuse. This is, of course, very dark subject matter, especially considering the story is based upon the experiences of a girl the performers actually met and thus needs to be handled very delicately. Whether they underestimate their young audience’s ability to infer detail, or have simply not thought it through, what follows is incredibly uncomfortable and, frankly, embarrassing. This said, it is a moment that proves to be a low point in what was overall an imaginative and enjoyable performance. As the large crowd leaves to take part in a post-show workshop, it is clear that the production companies have achieved their aims: to involve a young audience in discussions about contemporary English society and their place within it.