Posts Tagged ‘Paul Bhattacharjee’

Review – Disconnect – Royal Court (Jerwood Theatre Upstairs)

February 18, 2010

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.)

Review – The Great Game (part 1) – Tricycle theatre

May 8, 2009

Last night J and I went to the Tricycle to see the first third of “The Great Game,” the series of plays on Afghanistan newly commissioned for this event. The plays are set up so that you can see all of them at once, as an all-day event, or split them up into three different evenings, in chronological sets. I’m not really one to sit in a chair watching anything for eight hours, but the promise of new theater (which I like to support) broken into bite-sized chunks (several short plays in each set, meaning the chances of seeing really good stuff was higher and the amount of time you needed to survive a bad one was lower) was irresistable.

The night I went was the earliest set, from about 1860 through the 1920s, with brief modern interludes to provide background. We opened with the Taliban arresting a sign painter, doubtlessly for a variety of crimes (the hugely informative program suggested that listening to music, painting a woman, and not wearing a beard were all likely reasons for his arrest). We then slipped into the best play of the evening: “Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad,” a play about the tragedy of the 16000 British soldiers “and camp followers” (including wives and servants) who died while attempting to escape Kabul for Jalalabad.

The text, about four soldiers waiting for “the other survivors” (there was only one) was enhanced by text from the diary of Lady Sale (performed by Jemma Regrave), who’d been left behind as a hostage. The performances of the four men (Daniel Betts, Tom McKay, Rick Warden, and Hugh Skinner) nicely captured the madness of war, especially the way they turned on the Afghani (Nabil Elouahabi) who came their way. Imperialism, cultural idiocy, the futility of invasive wars, religious animosity – so much came out in this short time of the problems that basically have not managed to go away. But, more importantly, it captured the eerie feeling of the unbelievable, savage deaths of so many to an extent that it almost felt like a ghost story. It was the highlight of the evening for me.

Of the remaining plays, I felt they suffered from overacting and belaboring their point. Siba Shakib’s “Duologue,” abut the heroine Malalai, who rallied her people to fight against the British, was practically a propaganda piece, and Jemima Rooper didn’t seem to have the least bit of humanity in her portrayal of this person. It is possible that this was really a problem of the script, but hard for me to tell. “Durand’s Line,” about the borders set by Sir Mortimer Durand for the nation of Afghanistan, almost had a comic-book portrayal of Abdur Rahman (Paul Battacharjee), the Amir of Afghanistan from 1880-1901 – he was like Ming the Merciless. The play succeeded in expressing the political and social reality of that time, so I think was somewhat successful, but the acting needed work (again – though actually Michael Cochrane seemed letter-perfect as the pushy civil servant who could easily ignore he was dealing with a man who boiled people alive, and I had no complaints about either Danny Rahim or Rick Warden’s performances) and I felt the character of Abdur was also extremely thin.

After intermission, we return to two eminently forgettable playlets: “Campaign” (by Amit Gupta) which appeared to primarily be concerned with feeding the audience the history of early 20th century Afghanistan via the character of the professor (Paul Bhattacharjee), and “Now is the Time,” which depicted the end of the rule of the man who attempted to modernize Afghanistan in the period the professor had just been describing. “Campaign” seemed like it might have been attempting to insert a little humor with its trope of “the civil servant trying to get some free information from an intellectual,” but I didn’t find it very funny and since I’d just read the story of Amanullah’s failure to bring Attaturk-style reforms to Afghanistan in the program, I also found it boring. It was like one of those horrible moments in SF novels where the author decides they need to explain the details of faster-than-light space flight that they’ve made up for their universe. “Now is the Time” (by Joy Wilkinson) had a real “End of the Tsars” feeling to it, but instead of really focusing on the human drama and the interaction between the characters, it just kept layering on the historical detail as if that were the real purpose of the play. It’s a shame, really, because the question of whether or not Amanullah Khan shot his own father to become king of Afghanistan was really interesting and highly relevant to the question of whether or not he’d just betrayed his father in law (Mahmud Tarzi, played by Vincent Ebrahim) in order to save his own skin. We’re talking serious tension, all of which is eventually let out like air from a balloon as the three leads pile back into their car and head off to Russia with their driver. It really just was not good enough, and Jemima Rooper was also failing to hit it as Soroya Tarzi, daughter of Mahmud and wife of Amanullah. To top it off, I swear their accents all sounded fake.

Overall, though, with such a fast moving pace (six stories between 8 PM and 10:05) and low ticket price (£13), I considered this a good evening – not enough to make me want to sit through the full day showing off all plays in the cycle, but enough to want to come back for part 2 or part 3.

(This review is for a play seen on May 6th, 2008. The Great Game continues through June 16th at The Tricycle. Support new theater – go see this show!)