It’s safe to say that the cast of The Broke N Beat Collective are a talented bunch. The show – a collaboration between 20 Stories High and Theatre-Rites – is a mash up of live music, performance poetry, movement, beat boxing and puppetry, all performed by just four members: Jack Hobbs, Ryan Harston, Elisha Howe and Mohsen Nouri.
Although it has been written and directed by Keith Saha and Sue Buckmaster, Collective still retains a spontaneous, unscripted feel. Its songs and stories were written with help from young people during workshops in London and Liverpool, which is probably why they feel so honest and heartfelt. The only downside to the episodic, gig-style format is that the show feels fragmented, not helped by slightly overlong transitions between some sections.
Different characters are brought to life through a clever fusion of song and puppetry. Paper Girl, a lifesize model of a young girl made of paper, suffers abuse as a child and begins to self harm – her hard-hitting story is made more poignant with acoustic guitar accompaniment. A grey hoodie, stretched and manipulated to look as if it’s worn by an invisible person, becomes the recurring character Speaker Boy. Initially unwilling to speak to the audience, Speaker Boy eventually finds his voice by having a speaker fitted into his empty hood, through which a powerful speech is played. On the more light-hearted end of the scale, a small grey puppet with a boom box for a head is surprisingly cute. Using it to flick between radio stations, the cast perform a medley of different genres – including a cover of ‘Billie Jean’ and a dubstep remix of David Cameron sound bites. This section includes some jaw dropping beat boxing from Hobbit (Jack Hobbs).
There are boxes everywhere in this show – from the literal rendering of Jack in the Box, a character trapped by fatherhood with a cardboard box for a head, to beat boxing, to the mountain of stacked brown boxes that form the backdrop. These are opened up to reveal individual characters’ stories. For one song, smaller boxes unfold to reveal a miniature cardboard version of an estate, complete with lit windows, people and police cars. In an ingenious twist, mobile phone footage of these sets are live fed onto a screen to create video surveillance. Overall, Miriam Nabarro’s design does an excellent job of bringing the gritty yet vibrant urban world of the Collective to life.