The Broke ‘N’ Beat Collective, Battersea Arts Centre

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Kids have it tough, especially if they’re poor. Decreasing social mobility, higher costs of education and living, and decreasing welfare are trapping our future generations in inescapable cycles of poverty. They are just as aspirational as young people from more privileged backgrounds and aware of the opportunities they don’t have. They are angry, frustrated and lack the opportunity to constructively express their feelings that often go completely disregarded by more comfortable members of society.

Theatre-Rites and 20 Stories High, seeing validity in their voices, worked with numerous young people in this demographic to devise a gig-theatre show that shares experiences of being a poor teenager in Britain today. The Broke ‘N’ Beat Collective is an empowering, important work that uses fantastic puppetry, mask and music to create a gloriously messy collage of young people’s concerns and issues. Structurally mirroring the rough and ready, fractured existence of urban youth culture, it rebels against theatrical and cultural preconceptions without apology for its flaws.

Elisha Howe’s (aka Elektric) soaring rhymes and Jack Hobbs (aka Hobbit) beatboxing energise the audience and establish a defiant, proud tone that carries through the show. They are not backing down, nor are B-boy Ryan Harson (aka LoGisTics) and puppeteer Mohsen Nouri. They literally zoom in on the tiny model tower blocks and street scenes of urban Britain, replicated in cardboard wonderfully extracted from the plain back wall, creating a landscape of alternating songs with monologues. These set pieces and puppets pass on the otherwise unknown life stories of young people they’ve met.

Omar is an insecure, confrontational grey hoodie that takes the whole show to find his voice. Jack’s a wannabe gangsta who knocks up Latifa (both with cartoonish, cardboard heads) and ditches her and the resulting child that reflects on how that’s shaped his life goals. Joanne is the Papergirl who cuts herself because her mum’s boyfriend abused her. There’s also the incredible Speaker Boy, a rotund, playful chap with a boombox for a head. Each puppet is as unique as the young person behind it, and just as inspiring. (Seriously, go look at the puppets’ photos in the gallery part way down the page; they are some of the most emotionally endowed bits of paper and foam I’ve ever encountered. All of these characters unashamedly demand attention with precise, evocative storytelling and a joyfully visualised presence. These stories are broadcast along side an ever-changing soundtrack with interjections of dance, banter and spoken word, simultaneously creating an atmosphere of celebration and seriousness. Though fun, it never loses the sense of the weight behind the work.

Despite the boldness in the work and the importance of its messages, there are some sloppy transitions that cause the piece to lose momentum. Elektric unnecessarily introduces each number by name, and there are some in-jokes between the performers that, whilst sweet, don’t carry energy with their small scale. This gives the whole piece a choppiness that makes it feel unfinished.

All four performers’ exemplary skillsets and vibrance are fantastic vehicles for the young people of this country seeking escape from the poverty that is so limiting to their ambition. Each moment connects to the next through a theme rather than a storyline, but the effect mirrors modern society: a bit messy, emotional and ambitious for a better life. The fun doesn’t override or trivialize the seriousness, and neither is it too weighty. The unpolished feel is very much ingrained in the gig-theatre style, and though it would be great to learn more about the characters presented, The Broke ‘N’ Beat Collective truly holds a mirror up to nature.

The Broke ‘N’ Beat Collective runs through 2 April.

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