tue 25/06/2024

A Playlist for the Revolution, Bush Theatre review - idealism meets reality head-on | reviews, news & interviews

A Playlist for the Revolution, Bush Theatre review - idealism meets reality head-on

A Playlist for the Revolution, Bush Theatre review - idealism meets reality head-on

Two students clash over changing the world with a playlist

Bill Knight

The revolution in the title of AJ Yi’s new play at the Bush is the one activists hoped to set in motion in Hong Kong in 2019, when China’s stewardship was increasingly restricting their civil liberties.

The music on the playlist serves as an evocative backing track for the former colony’s 21st century makeover by China, a Western-influenced alternative. 

It’s also a call to arms. At least, that’s what Chloe Chang (Mae Mae Macleod) is hoping when she suggests creating a playlist to the young economics student, Jonathan Lau (Liam Lau-Fernandez), whom she meets on the last night of her visit to Hong Kong. Chloe is, in Jonathan’s terms, “kooky”: a fashion-conscious law student who lives in the UK, loves to party and adores Beyoncé, K-Pop and BTS, but definitely not Coldplay. Even though yellow is her favourite colour.

The tentative relationship between Chloe and Jonathan, which begins at a club, is concocted from pretty predictable ingredients. He is an earnest besuited young man who conducts a risk analysis before every big decision: to her, he’s “so Asian”, a square who doesn’t know who Beyoncé is and can’t dance. She is his polar opposite: impulsive, idealistic, downright naive, but a great mover. You know there is a spark there when he throws caution to the wind and starts doing a bizarre routine that makes him look like a demented chicken.

Across the thousands of miles between Hong Kong and Durham, they start exchanging ideas for their playlist. She suggests Joni Mitchell’s "Big Yellow Taxi", but also John Lennon’s "Imagine" and, when the student pro-democracy protests kick off, Edwin Starr’s "War". Jonathan regards the demos as a nuisance, interruptions to his studies. But he is happy to allow Chloe to think he is taking part in them, carried along by a desire to impress.

They are a lively pair, but quite annoying and too jejune by half - even sensible Jonathan who lives in fear of disappointing his father and his father’s friends. The two actors deliver the lines at high velocity, and Macleod in particular is prone to swallowing her lines.

Luckily, they aren’t the only attraction. One day Jonathan arrives at the campus room he has booked so he can practise on its piano (music is a “craft” he thinks he has to master, typically), only to find an older man working on a poster who refuses to budge. Chu (Zak Shukor, pictured below) is a janitor, his poster a sign to take to the protests, which he has been inspired to join by the demonstrating students.

At once, the dynamic of the play changes. Chu is a cynical man, drily funny, wiry but weighed down by an unspoken emotion he is trying to bury. You sense his cynicism is born of this deep personal wound. He becomes the grown-up in Jonathan’s life, with advice worth listening to, especially about politics. Despite the social gap between them and Jonathan’s desire to stay “neutral” and not join the protesters, they become friends. 

Zak Shukor in Playlist for the RevolutionThe imbalance in their relationship shifts when Chu is reluctant to go to a gathering where the protesters will be singing a specially composed song that expresses their beliefs about a better future – and Chu admits he has given up on hope and doesn’t want to join them on this occasion. But Jonathan’s love of music and Chu’s politics converge, and Jonathan offers to go with him to the demo. The swap is neatly made: Chu has a replacement for the son he has lost and Jonathan has a father figure (his much-missed mother is dead, his father regularly away on business).

Shukor is a mesmerising actor, still and focused, his every move quietly controlled, like an Aikido black belt’s. His face is often deadpan, which makes his sparky one-liners all the more effective, though his eyes are alive and locked onto their target. By the end, he has become a model of courage and selflessness.

This makes it hard for Jonathan and Chloe’s lives to look anything but Gen Z frivolous, even though both start showing signs of maturity, especially Jonathan, by the last scene. They are (dread word) relatable, but not especially appealing, though the awareness they reach is a promising new start.

The production, directed by Emily Ling Williams and sparely designed by Liam Bunster, ends on an uplifting note, an aerial shot of hundreds of demonstrating Hong Kongers, with their special song – at first played on a piano by Jonathan, then moved to a full orchestral arrangement – as a soundtrack. But the play feels like a partially missed opportunity.

After the performance was over, I realised that what was missing was a fully developed sense of the impact the dramatic events that had overtaken Hong Kong and displaced so many of its residents had had on those who left. We get one brief scene: I would have traded some of the scenes where Chloe and Jonathan chatter and banter about changing the world for a stronger sense of how they have been changed. Maybe Yi will write that play at some point soon.

They are a lively pair, but quite annoying and too jejune by half


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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