Lab Ky Mo
Hackney Empire Studio
Resting actors used to work in coffee bars or as typing temps. Now, a job in a call centre can pay the rent: despite the heavily-accented unwanted calls that you may get, they are not all in India. Out of work Bronwyn (Sian Allen) tries to convince herself it that such a job is just another form of acting engagement. She is role-playing and has a script to keep to, but that's not enough and she pins her desperate hopes on an audition for part in a piece about Thomas Hardy to be played in a cemetery. Erno (Brendan Mackey), an Irish colleague, claims to be an ex-combatant in the Iraq War. Smart-suited Saaed (Andrew Lothian) is black and Muslim; he's a stockbroker who lost his job. Dougal (Daniel York), the only one who treats this as a real job, left home 17 years ago and now wants to re-establish contact with a brother who used to get drunk and beat him up - there is a fascinating subplot here that's unexplored.
This is a motley group, supervised by Rehana (Sarah Sayeed), who drinks Red Bull and wears a track suit under her burkha, and their boss Nick (Matthew Coombes) who has already been there for five years and wants out - if only he could get their productivity up to help him win a bonus and fund his escape. They seem a friendly enough bunch, despite the pressure from Nick to keep their noses to the grindstone and to stick strictly to official breaks but the action takes place on the day when terrorist bombs were going off in London and this gives a sharper t focus to their differences.
Writer Lab Ky Mo has a good ear for dialogue and creates a believable work atmosphere (he has worked in just such a centre) and the petty conflicts between the characters sustain our interest, so that this is an effective 'work' play, but he fails to use the terrorist situation to push things further. This is partly because he does not give us sufficient information. Dougal is late for work - and with good reason, he has been a passenger on a bus that had an unexploded bomb. No one else knows anything about this, so it appears to be an isolated event. Later we hear that while the call centre staff stay at their work the rest of London's workers have started to walk home. I'm not sure how they know, perhaps they can see them through a window? This must be taking place on July 7th 2005 but we have not been told about the bombs that did go off, nor is clear that the action all takes place on the same day. Its black-outs to switch from work environment to chat's outside could cover a period of days.
The characters may be tied to their headsets, but wouldn't any of the people they call have reacted more forcibly on such a day and made some reference to it. At one point Erno is either cracking up because of the pressure of Iraq memories or shooting a phoney line - that is probably where the 'Five Tanks' come in. However, I never heard them mentioned. Lab Ky Mo is better known as the director of the movie Nine Dead Gay Guys and he has drawn very natural performances from his cast, but he seems to have forgotten that he doesn't have a sound boom swinging between them. Admittedly I was sitting at the back and suffering from a head cold - but surely six rows in a small studio should not have presented hearing problems! That did not help his play or cast. I don't blame the actors: voices on the telephone lines were clear, Daniel York I could always hear perfectly, the others most of the time, but perhaps some crucial information failed to reach me that would have turned a mildly amusing engagement into something with more depth. If you are familiar with a script it is easy to think its delivery is comprehensible - but it is the audience who are hearing for the first time whom you need to reach!
At Hackney Empire until 10th November 2007
Reviewer: Howard Loxton