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A Rave for Beats at the Soho Theatre

Repost: with One Stop Arts closing, I migrated this review here.

A thoughtful, imaginative and minimalist Glaswegian production, Beats asks us to consider the meaning of music in all its resonant layers. At the Soho Theatre.

The impetus for this story is the 1994 Criminal Justice Act banning public gatherings around amplified music characterised by ‘the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.’ Writer, performer, and co-director Kieran Hurley introduces Johnno, a scrawny fifteen-year-old boy whose realm is defined by his anxious mum Alison, his mate Spanner (two years older and a bit of a wrong’un), and his oversized green hoodie in which he hides from the pointy end of the world. And tonight Johnno’s mate Spanner is going to take him out to a real, honest-to-goodness, actual rave.

In the very simplest terms, this is a story about a young man being taken to a rave by a friend and trying drugs for the first time. Then there’s the fallout when the rave is raided by the police. But Hurley’s writing has a perspicacity and depth that allows Beats to explore grand ideas while staying grounded in the prosaic concerns of a small, scared young person. Johnno understands Zelda, spots, and dance music played on his Walkman. On this night he is confronted with the idea that music, specifically this kind of music and the deliberate gathering of people to listen to it, might have a purpose, an importance, that hasn’t yet been revealed to him. Around this coming-of-age narrative Hurley weaves concerns about the erosion of civil liberties, the importance and inevitability of family, and the shifting meanings of nationalism and community following the industrial policies of 1980s Britain.

On top of this Hurley is a skilled storyteller, bringing crisp definition to each of the characters he plays. As Johnno he gives the impression of a baby bird, all fluffy hair and slight limbs. Alison, Johnno’s mum, is full of wearied inner strength. Spanner has a bravado swiftly unhinged in a challenging situation. Spanner’s mate, D-man, the one with the car who drives them to the rave: he has a drive that is both lyrical and political. Robert Dunlop is really two characters, for Robert’s internal discourse is a constant argument with the ghost of his dead father, the unionist. The unionist who would have been ashamed to see his son a member of the police force.

Enlarging the atmosphere is the onstage DJ Hushpuppy, providing the soundtrack to Johnno’s life, and VJ Jamie Wardrop, mixing video that evokes the world as imagined by the characters. One moment of special resonance comes at the beginning and end of the show: during the second scene Hurley introduces himself and explains what is about to take place, which will definitely involve a series of repetitive beats, he says.  After this he addresses the audience: ‘And you’ll all fill in the gaps. This is it. This is all there is. That’s your lot, really.’

The minimal styling of the production requires the audience to be fully present, not just with attention but also with imagination. All theatre occurs in a place somewhere between the performers and the audience. One of this production’s strengths is trusting the audience enough to invite them into that space by framing it wisely and with compassion.

Originally reviewed for One Stop Arts, Tuesday 15 October 2013.