Theatre Review: Liberation Squares at the Playhouse

Words: Bea Udeh
Saturday 20 April 2024
reading time: min, words

Truth be told, Sonali Bhattacharyya has written a big play over a long period of time to fit into the relatively small Neville Studio at Nottingham Playhouse. And this is the kind of hugeness that Bea Udeh found bursting from the scenes of this world premiere production of  Liberation Squares...

Liberation Squares Ali Wright 29

Sometimes we want to experience art and culture to be a bit freeing, or familiar, or just funny. Other times we want to be challenged by art and culture.  It can be a bit of a challenge to find an immediate connection, the ‘in’, with a theatrical or cultural production because you want to not only identify with the storytelling, you also want to submerge yourself into the location of that story.  There are ways to deliberately distract yourself from finding that ‘in’, the connection with another person’s story.  I was actually distracted upon my arrival to Nottingham Playhouse as I had a great idea for the shape and structure of this review.  But you know how it goes when it feels like someone has poured a can of cold orange pop over you, so you have to take a moment to re-group and resolve the situation quickly.  One way to resolve an issue is to look for clues in the environment, and I saw purples, blues and greys with lots of quadrilateral shapes in the set broken up by a looping machine and a lectern.  Through the lighting ( JOSHUA GADSBY), set design (TOMÁS PALMER) and the choreographed movement (ISKANDAR إسكندر R. SHARAZUDDIN), you jiggle intentionally to many locations, subtly your head bobs to the right and downstage, cleverly your eyes slide upstage to visit bus stops, a library - renamed to the french form, ‘bibliotheque’ but with a ‘k’, the latest bubble tea spot, and of course, Liberation Square. 

These right-angled shapes are not my usual go to when navigating storytelling as I prefer the nuance in curves and circles, but it was the intense sisterhood between teenage friends, Sabi (ASHA HASSA)] and Ruqaya (VANEEKA DADHRIA) that made me nod in agreement or ruefully shake my head in a tutting manner as I reminisced on what it was like to shape young adult futures about next steps in education, who was in who’s circle and the books or magazines we were gawking over.

...carrying the audience on a wave that was freeing and funny...

The direction of the performance (MILLI BHATIA) had a pacing throughout that was so da-da, da-da, da-da good (as I gesticulate rhythmically with each part of this sentence).  I could see the strings pulling me and the audience in with laughter and one-liners that kept the pressure building on the upset and intrigue when new pupil and social media influencer, Xara (HALEMA HUSSAIN) joins the school.  The cast were convincing as their teenage personas that carrying the audience on a wave that was freeing and funny.  There was no drop-off in pace as lipstick went on or was wiped off to depict multiple characters in the play alongside a series of seamless sounds looped by Ruqaya - and a shout-out for Xara’s spoken word performance with accompanying clicks.  The stage was ‘well used’ with no area of floor space or height ignored by the cast where whiteboards were rotated and a large cubic set prop became a pavement, then a bed, a social media platform, and finally a political platform.

Then came the step change, the mountaintop where the punchline of the play was revealed to us, the audience, so we would intentionally feel it without distraction.  After all, to raise awareness of the impact of teenage Muslim girls' interactions with the UK Government’s Prevent protocol and surveillance is hard to explore in just over an hour.  And still the tight camaraderie between Sabi, Xara and Ruqaya kept the audience enthralled, kept us wanting to find justice for their individual but intersecting situations.  Situations where whispers become shouts of, “potential criminal,” and social media posts make fast news matter.

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As I mentioned at the start, this is a big play set upon a studio space with links to people in Walthamstow in London, Nottingham and beyond.  I spoke briefly to writer Sonali afterwards who shared how she was commissioned to write it way before #UKlockdown.  She was inspired by the issues arising in Walthamstow at the time with the introduction of the Prevent agenda.  I shared how I had raised concerns around the same time in a school when I was a Parent Governor in the East Midlands.  Sonali went on to say that this version of the play had changed a lot including more urgency in the story.  Maybe Liberation Squares with its award-winning creative team can bring awareness and shine a light and consider how to indeed abolish the Prevent agenda so that young people all the way from Walesby to West Bridgford can voice their truths in safe spaces that are not at risk of funding cuts or surveillance.  

Liberation squares plays at Nottingham Playhouse from 12th of April to 27th April, 2024.

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