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Review: Unbroken Line

Posted on 10 December 2012 by Daniel Janes

Dolah, the protagonist of Unbroken Line, is having an identity crisis. A trainee accountant transplanted to Peckham from his native Malaysia, he’s not sure where his allegiances lie: “I have a Malaysian head that tells me one thing and a British heart that tells me another”. However, while Dolah is confused and uncertain, this sure-footed, big-hearted debut emphatically is not.

Unbroken Line
is the debut play from Anglo-Malay actor Jamie Zubairi, whose mixed media projects straddle the line between theatre and art; most recently, he was a participant in These Associations, Tino Sehgal’s commission at the Tate Modern Turbine Hall in which actors approached spectators with their stories. There, he was one of a swarm of about 300 performers. Here, he has a whole space to himself – the upstairs studio of Kennington’s lovely Ovalhouse Theatre – a space which he delightfully dominates.

In this one-man show, Zubairi draws on his interdisciplinary talents economically but effectively. There are two main characters in addition to Dolah, and both of them gain from the use of mixed media.  One is Joe, a successful Northern Irish painter; Dolah visits Joe, a former client, amid the elemental terrain of the Giant’s Causeway in order to work out issues surrounding his stifled creativity and sexuality. Here, Zubairi uses live painting, and a tender scene in which Joe and Dolah paint a canvas together is one of the play’s high points. The other character is Wira, a mythical warrior who acts as Dolah’s spiritual advisor, counselling him on how best to reconcile his European tendencies with his Malay roots. This device allows Zubairi to incorporate Balinese dance, choreographed by Mina Aidoo and Ni Made Pujawati; the dance acts as an anchor both for us and Dolah, ensuring that the spectre of Southeast Asia is never far away.

Unbroken Line has been in development for more than two years; an early form of the piece, Skylarking, was performed at the North Devon Theatre Festival in late 2010. Then, the play was busier and had a more unwieldy cast of characters, but the core tale – the personal crisis of Dolah the accountant – remained the same. Since that time, however, one development has given Zubairi’s creation a sense of urgency. One of the most shocking moments of the 2011 London riots was the assault on Ashraf Rossli, a Malaysian student: he was crouching on the floor after an attack at knifepoint, only to be mugged by two men who appeared to be coming to his aid. Though Zubairi makes only one mention of Rossli, it is a significant moment: he weaves the incident brilliantly into wider themes about the hostility of London’s urban environment.  One particular detail provides a crowning stroke: Rossli, too, had been studying accountancy.

Some of the play’s sentiments could easily have become prosaic; Wira’s advice to Dolah includes being himself, finding the beauty in the commonplace and looking out for acts of tenderness around him. However, Zubairi’s honesty, humour and sense of wonder ensure that this never happens.

The Christmas theatre season is traditionally a fallow period, with pantomimes and strained festive cheer pushing out more thoughtful, personal pieces. In this climate, Unbroken Line is a beacon amid the fog. What’s more – with its energy, its essential optimism and even, in one touching instant, puppetry – it proves to be surprisingly festive itself.

Unbroken Line continues at Ovalhouse until 15 December. More information can be found on the Ovalhouse website.

Daniel Janes

Daniel Janes

Daniel Janes is currently working on a documentary for BBC Two. He has blogged about arts, culture and history for Huffington Post UK and the New Statesman.

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Review: Coalition (Yellow Group)

Posted on 25 November 2010 by Tiffany Stoneman

Following Jake’s review of Tuesday’s ‘blue’ group, I ventured into ‘yellow’ territory of a new collaborative piece Coalition. I was intrigued from the moment I stepped into the pub and up the stairs to the theatre foyer; having never been to Theatre503 before, I was struck by the friendly atmosphere and Fringe-esque venue; traits I think are already setting it as a place to be watched for the emergence of great new writing.

And Coalition is just that – new writers coming out from the shadows and combining with alternative artists to create visual but thought-provoking pieces, a way of portraying currently political events that is interesting and relevant to the people of today. It also allowed the audience to view types of stage-art that they may never have considered seeing independently, and that variety brings something special to Theatre503 that I think is missing from a lot of ‘traditional’ theatres.

The Yellow group combined writers with a comedy sketch group, a choreographer, a musical duet, and a guitarist; each with their own cast, they managed to bring aspects of the political climate on to the stage in a way that was interesting, informative, and at times very moving.

We Are Where We Are – the first performance was a collaboration of Dominic Cavendish, theatre critic for the Daily Telegraph, and comedy group Clever Peter. In a setting that resonates a 1984 and V for Vendetta society, they allow the audience to be a fly on the wall in their “Conversation with a capital ‘C’” in which the benefits of an injured man are discussed and, ultimately, removed. Despite my lack of political know-how, I was able to follow their story (and it was definitely a story!) and pick up on their references, however subtle, to the current situation; it was funny and engaging, but reflected a serious message about the shifts the new government are making and the effects they may have, with sinister to reference to a possible future of corpse-fuelled light bulbs, the final push in ‘recycling’. The writing was clever in that you were sure of their intention and comparison with current politicians, but the message wasn’t forced and the characters weren’t farcical – it became a darkly comic foretelling of the potential for Britain’s leaders.

Of the Willing – Rex Obano teamed up with choreographer Mina Aidoo to develop a beautiful series of expressive dances. Although not all were clear in their relevance to the topic of politics, they were a visual treat and something I would never have otherwise seen; the power of the four dancers – Yaa Appiah-Badu, Nathan Johnston, Maddy Morgan, and Janina Smith – echoed through the room. Their use of an automated computer-voice that read out tweets referring to the rising tuition prices was a clever, if slightly creepy, representation of the information overload young people receive about politics, escalating into a manic progression of movements from the dancers in such an energetic way that the audience became exhausted watching and listening to the tweets. Despite having a more tenuous link to the overall theme, there is no questioning the skill and talent in both choreographing and performing these pieces.

Shotgun Civil Partnership in the Rose Garden – using the music written by Bourgeois and Maurice, Lola Stephenson developed an interesting sketch between a gardener and burglar. It may be down to my political ignorance, but as good as the piece was, I saw little relevance in the script. The children named ‘Fairness’, ‘Freedom’ and ‘Responsibility’ were obviously so called for a reason, but to me it was unclear and so some of the comedy was probably wasted on me.

PMQ – Ella Hickson and Gwendolen Chatfield produced an absolutely stunning collaboration, developing a moving text that was delivered extremely well by Richard Lintern. The piece consisted of Lintern voicing the thoughts of David Cameron just before his first Prime Minister’s Questions, with Chatfield acting as his conscience in the background, adding in those doubts we’re all sure to get, accompanied by her guitar and lines from Mumford and Sons’ Little Lion Man. This collaboration looked at Cameron as a man, not a politician, and managed to break down his apparent professional façade and expose his insecurities and worries, even with reference to his late son Ivan. It is easy to forget that people in power are in fact humans like the rest of us, and the Hickson/Chatfield partnership divulged the private thoughts of a very public man.

Bedrooms, Dens, and Other Forms of Magic – I had never thought combining writing with illustration onstage could be achieved, but Ben Ockrent and Susie Hogarth, illustrator, managed to produce an intimate, heart-warming story that, despite apparently having no political connotations whatsoever, was lovely to watch and generally a ‘nice’ piece of theatre. Harry Melling (most well-known as ‘Dudley Dursley’ in Harry Potter) worked beautifully beside Georgia King – I had seen Melling as ‘Swiss Cheese’ in Mother Courage and Her Children at the National last year, and yet again he did not disappoint in his characterisation of a socially-awkward, geeky teenage boy. The rapport between King and Melling was almost tangible, and the audience felt for both characters through their story of leaving school and finding themselves. As I said, I couldn’t quite recognise the political references, but either way it was a stunning piece of theatre, and the illustrative projections by Hogarth gave it a childhood resonance that brought it to life.

As with any production containing a variety of acts, Coalition had its ups and downs – however none of the downs were too appalling and all of the ups were outstanding. An interesting show that exposes the audience to things they may never have considered before, and provides a new insight into the current political climate without shoving opinions down your throats. As a venue for new writing, Theatre503 has definitely produced something unique.

Coalition is playing at Theatre 503 until 5th December. For more information and to book tickets, see the website here.

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