Review – Disconnect – Royal Court (Jerwood Theatre Upstairs)

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Tonight J and I went to the Royal Court to see “Disconnect,” Anupama Chandrasekhar’s new play about the lives of Indian call center workers. It was performed in the far, far upper reaches of the theater, the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, which was new to me. Normally horrifying general, unmarked seating was thoroughly compensated for due to good legroom and “Corinthian Leather” bench seats that were actually comfy, and no crazed, EastJet-like scrum for a place.

The show is fully focused on an Indian debt-collection agency, the sort that has its staff use American names and (not sure if this happens, but it did in the show) assume American identities that help them better “empathize” with their marks. We start out the show focused on low-level manager Avinash (Paul Bhattacharjee), a middle aged, long term employee who’s being given his review by Jyothi (Hasina Haque, struggling with the accent). See, Avinash isn’t young and hip enough for this company, which wants its employees to be happy – and double their targets for the month, so he’s got a choice – leave, or take over the lowest performing team in the company.

Quickly the action moves to Avinash’s new territory, the “Illinois” team, who work in a windowless, fourth-floor office. We meet outgoing Ross (Nikesh Patel), efficient but flirty Vidya (Ayesha Dharker), and new kid on the block Giri (Neet Mohan). After expecting a horrifying pack of near-robots, the debt collectors turn out to be amazingly personable, teasing and cajoling their customers into giving them some of their near-nonexistent cash. It’s a hard market: America is, after all, in a recession, and the kids hear all of the horror stories out there. Their camaraderie and repartee is broken by the arrival of Avinash, who tells them it’s time to stick by the script.

At this point I thought the story was going to become about how the three young folks ganged up against the rigid old man, possibly leading to his conversion to a less uptight version of his earlier self, but instead, it mostly continued to focus on the team, their interactions with each other and the rather comic way they handled their calls. A relationship has been developing with Ross and Vidya – at one point (as they continue haranguing their marks for money), he takes her on an imaginary trip to the observation point on the Sears tower – but he starts becoming more distant from her and even (in a shocking bit of dialogue) mocks her for her dark skin. Each of the three gets caught up in their own dramas: Vidya and Ross over the phone, Giri with his own lust for consumer products.

The big conflict turns out to be Ross against Avinash, but for reasons I never guessed and with an outcome that was pretty hair raising – one of those really intense moments of theater when you have no idea what is going to happen next, but have become so caught up in the characters that it really matters to you. I’ll skip comment, though, so as not to ruin the surprise.

Overall, I thought this play still needed a bit of massaging. There was too much fussiness with changing the seats around from one position to another for the many scenes (nearly all of them) that took place in the Illinois room, and at one point I felt like there were too many scenes period, that they were just filling time rather than moving the story along. I enjoyed the depiction of what life might be like on the other side of the phone lines – and the play neatly caught many elements of modern Indian culture – and expect it will improve as the cast settles in, but, still, it’s a slight work – not that I didn’t feel like I got my fifteen quid out of it. And I liked seeing a play that really captured an element of modern society. So: enjoyable, but not life changing, and worth the cost of the tickets.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Wednesday, February 17th, 2010. Disconnect continues through March 20th, 2010.)

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One Response to “Review – Disconnect – Royal Court (Jerwood Theatre Upstairs)”

  1. DISCONNECT :) Says:

    this review is rubbish- were you even watching disconnect?

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