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The Mob Reformers

Omar El-Khairy
Lyric Ensemble
Lyric Hammersmith
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It’s not every day you go to watch a play and one of the actors is led off the stage by a police officer. But despite the early interruption and impromptu substitution of a lead actor, this brave band of mob reformers marched the performance on to an unlikely triumph. And in a play which so boldly pushes the boundaries of the fourth wall and blurs the lines between history and the present, you could almost be forgiven for thinking it was all part of the show.

Born out of nine months of research and workshops with 15 young and emerging actors, this is a one-off piece of work that is as refreshing as it is unconventional. They set out to answer the question, “can theatre make the change in the world that we want to see?”.

Their journey takes us back to the City of London in 1381, where a rebellion is brewing. Peasants from the outlying counties of Essex and Kent have taken a stand against the harsh laws and unfair conditions and plot to march on London in revolt against the 14-year-old king, Richard II.

But this is no ordinary history lesson. Omar El-Khairy’s adaption of the old English script, delivered in the inflections of contemporary young Londoners, soon unravels into a colourful blend of old and new language, interspersed with hip-hop and rap music. King Richard becomes modern-day music royalty served by his many Instagram followers. Meanwhile, the peasants’ leader, Wat Tyler, whips up support for the rebellion through a live rap performance on Radio 1 Xtra.

There are plenty of humorous nods to the modern parallels of social inequality; we can all relate to the ‘just-about-managing’ executioners trying to suss out the best value options in a Pizza Express deal. In one of the play’s darker moments, Wat Tyler is murdered in a greasy spoon café in a scene which hints at London’s current gang culture and knife crime epidemic. It’s these cleverly interwoven references which make this not just a play about the past but a creative portrayal of the perennial story of class oppression.

Director Holly Race Roughan doesn’t shy away from a bit of experimentation with this energetic cast. The play opens with a modern sort of prologue from a comedy duo; one of whom stumbles in late, not yet in costume. They set the tone of playful anachronism and warm up the audience by forcefully recruiting everyone into the mob army.

The performance is framed by this ‘behind the scenes access’, wrapping up with a tongue-in cheek ‘making of’ video, which offers a glimpse into the group’s research and many failed attempts to contact the present Lord Mayor of the City London. Their failure to come face to face with the man in charge is yet another hint at the enduring nature of the imbalance of power. Although the video does feel slightly staged and gratuitous, it certainly demonstrates the energy and enthusiasm that has gone into the production and the strong chemistry which binds the actors together.

The cast’s resilience in the face of an unexpected challenge is testament to their talent and the work that has gone into this production. Whilst there’s definitely room for further development and polishing, The Mob Reformers certainly delivers on entertainment, packing a thought-provoking punch.

Reviewer: Hollie Goodall