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Here. The 99%
Lyric Hammersmith
23rd August 2013

★★★☆☆

After curating an evening of short plays themed around last year's hottest event - the Olympics - and another around the festive season, BackHere! Theatre have decided to take an edgier tack and dedicate a night to politics. Here. The 99% is self-explanatory, it's built around the idea that the majority of wealth and influence belong to an elite top 1%, with the average person being part of the remaining 99%, and this being unfair.

The ensemble

Photography supplied by BackHere! Theatre

Seven short plays were chosen and overseen by the company's artistic directors Craig Henry and Helena Doughty to represent this concept. And apparently the audience were invited to deliver a two minute soapbox rant in between, but it was unclear how they could do so. There were in the end two speakers - and probably two too many.

Now, we're strong believers in theatre being a powerful tool that can move, entertain, and educate without the need for an activist from The People's Assembly and a second promoting Peace One Day to ram it down our throats. Beyond supporting the arts, we have no official affiliation - we don't review rallies, we review theatre. If a show has a political message, fine, but we don't expect to have a campaigner, regardless of the validity of the message, thrust upon us.

Secondly, the inclusion of speakers showed a lack of confidence in the plays being showcased. Most of them did have a clear message, and they should have been allowed to stand on their own. If BackHere! felt that the message they wanted to promote wasn't evident enough from the drama, they should have requested script revisions. With the co-founders of BackHere! both experienced in acting and directing, we feel they should have had more faith in their craft.

But onto the drama. Opening the night, Faye Marie's The Lost Generation was inspired by a tragic 2010 headline. A young, chatty girl (the likable Laura Morgan) tells us her story, bouncing off the audience and bringing us in her world, before revealing the darker side of her tale. She may have loving friends, family and potential Prince Charming, but the dole is draining her confidence. The Lost Generation focuses on the emotional impact of relying on state help, making clear that for ambitious young people, it's the last thing they want. It's a hard-hitting, strong start that never feels exploitative despite its basis in reality and delivers its points well.

Leanne Alabi's It's Only True Until It's Not True is a two hander between two youths (Jannine Perrineau and Ben Wiggins) discussing the inequality of their lives, and the need for change. The boy's impassioned attack is supported even more ineloquently by the girl, both unhappy with the situation, but unable to properly communicate the issues. Not only are they held back by a lack of money, but also a lack of education. If the dialogue is difficult to follow in places, it's intentional and only strengthens Alabi's point of inescapable disenfranchisement.

The most successful piece is undoubtedly Arts Grant. This short play, penned by D A Nixon, is both outwardly hilarious and packed full of deeper meaning. It opens with a loans advisor (Damien Hughes) making a fool of himself with some nice physical comedy. But the meat of the story is his interaction with a potential client (Morgan) who wants a leap of faith - and wad of cash - to help her write a novel.

A rambling, ostensibly pointless anecdote involving a cat and mouse is wonderfully bleak, bringing home the message Nixon wants to make. It's a clever device, and is delivered well by Hughes, who ends up the most the typecast of the company of six, always playing the funny Scot. Limiting perhaps, but he does it really well, and there are worse things than a similarity to Peter Capaldi.

The ensemble

Photography © Sam Goodchild Photography

Betting with the Budget is a much more thinly concealed attack on the Government, with Chris O'Connor's piece involving two politicians (Wiggins and Hughes) literally betting wih the nation's cash and then owning up to the Prime Minister (Morgan). The concept isn't particularly clever, but the script is written sharply, and the actors deliver it with enough comedy to make it worthwhile.

Ellen Carr's Vermin is another monologue, this time acted by Claire Lowrie. Like the work before it, it's not particularly subtle, but it fits in well with the evening's theme. The woman tells us how much she despises flies and debates whether they are in fact necessary. It's not the most engaging piece of writing, but Lowrie fortunately has plenty of stage presence and keeps us listening. It marks a return to raw narrative for Carr, with this offering far stronger than her Camden Fringe work, Window.

It could be argued that sexism is an issue for the marginalised 99% and the commodification of bodies in a capitalist, masculine hierarchy. But the inclusion of Sex(ism) Sells is a little jarring and would fit an evening on, say, feminism, much better as it's not an issue solely faced by the 99%. Isabelle Emma Stokes' play sees a young woman, played by both Perrineau and Lowrie, try to land an assistant manager job in fashion retail. Confronted by a chauvinistic interviewer (Andy Apollo), she struggles to keep her cool.

Having two actresses play the same character - Perrineau being the inner voice - is a clever trick, making this the most creatively staged piece of the evening. Perrineau and Lowrie work in tandem, reacting immediately to the other - as Perrineau outwardly frets and rails, the anxiety is mirrored in Lowrie's face. There's a serious message to the piece, but Perrineau in particular brings the funny.

Rounding off the evening is David William Bryan's Seven, a story involving powerplay between a rich, spoilt CEO (Apollo) and one of his lowly employees (Hughes). Plot holes aside - and it has to be said, we forgave these as quickly as they arose, because they allowed for some intriguing developments - the premise showed a great deal of originality and flair.

It's a shame that the boss was portrayed as evil because of his wealth - had he been evil regardless of his cash, this would have made his character less two-dimensional. But it's understandable to take this tack in an evening looking at how absolute power corrupts absolutely. And the choice of music at the end was unnecessary, cheapening the overall impact. But there was certainly a spark of something engaging in the script, and it's a play which could be fleshed out further, should Bryan want to do so. Perhaps we're the most critical of this piece, but it was one of our favourites.

On the whole, we were impressed by the quality of the short plays, but we were left disappointed by the non-artistic elements and the naivete of some of the arguments proffered - something that could be seen no matter where you fall on the political spectrum. If you're going to blur the line between art and politics, you need a bit more finesse.

But we couldn't stop talking about the evening and in that respect, BackHere! Theatre have succeeded in starting a debate. We'd just like to see them stay truer to their roots next time and make the theatre the focus of their efforts, as this is where their real talent lies.

Here. The 99% ran on 23rd August 2013 at Lyric Hammersmith.

Nearest tube station: Hammersmith (Piccadilly, District, Circle, Hammersmith & City)



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