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Review: Broke ‘n’ Beat Collective – Unity Theatre

KEITH Saha of Liverpool based 20 Stories High and Sue Buckmaster of Theatre Rites have worked together before and Liverpool audiences will remember their work on Melody Loses her Mojo in 2013. Both are committed to helping young people to find a voice through theatre, and here they join forces to explore a collection of issues that are often ignored or misunderstood.

In a world where young people are pigeon holed or hold their problems locked away internally, Broke ‘n’ Beat Collective encourages us to think inside the box.

In something that seems to have grown out of a set that Miriam Nabarro designed for Saha’s 2014 ‘Black’, she has now created a world that lives entirely in cardboard boxes, stacked up at the rear of the stage. The cast unfold boxes to reveal scenes from young lives, while out of other boxes emerge puppets and props enabling the stories to be told.

Broke ‘n’ Beat Collective introduce themselves as a band playing a gig, in which each of the numbers they perform recounts a young person’s story. The material comes from direct workshops with real people, but the off-the-wall delivery enables us to see each of their lives from a different angle. Principal narrator is poet and singer Elektric (Elisha Howe) and alongside her are b-boy dancer Ryan LoGisTic Harston, puppeteer Mohsen Nouri and, creating most of the soundtrack, champion beat-boxer Hobbit (Jack Hobbs).

Hip-hop theatre meets puppetry in many different ways during the show’s unbroken 70 minutes, but the effect is constantly alive and thought-provoking. The four performers cross over between each other’s disciplines in sequences where dancers perform as if puppets, with boxes on their heads, where one or more operate puppets to a narrative, and where all there is is the music.

A girl cuts herself because magazines give her a negative body image, so she’s played by a puppet made entirely of paper, while another gives birth to a baby made entirely of boxes. There’s humour with a boom box becoming the head of a dancing puppet, but there’s a political message behind this too.

Running through the whole show is a thread following Omar, a boy in a grey hoodie who feels marginalised and invisible and reacts with a mixture of fear and aggression. This puppet – an empty hooded top – is startlingly human in form despite its lack of a face or lower body, and the skill of the puppetry here is really striking. The sequence when Omar finds a voice and finally connects is, along with the Paper Girl, among the most emotionally charged parts of the work.

What Saha and Buckmaster achieve in spades here is a perfect balance between emotional tension and engaging humour, and the entire piece is delivered with such energy that it can’t fail to keep its audience engaged. Rarely will you find such weighty issues leaving you with quite such a sense of exhilaration.

Broke ‘n’ Beat Collective plays at Unity until Saturday 13th February after which it continues on a 14 venue tour ending April 2nd.

Review by Nigel Smith


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