Review by Sam Waite
Leaning into the political and informative powers of theatre, AJ Yi’s new play, A Playlist for the Revolution, has made a powerful opening at London’s Bush Theatre. Set during and centred around the Hong Kong protests in 2019 and early 2020, Yi’s piece explores identity, heritage, and the double-edged sword of being politically driven in a world where being so openly comes with serious risks.
Beginning as a charming, music-driven rom-com, Playlist opens at a wedding reception where Jonathan and Chloe first meet. A conversation centred on music and their respective studies eventually leads to a fun-filled night together which leads to her missing her flight – she asks to stay with him for longer, he awkwardly declines. Jonathan being a local and attended university in Hong Kong, and Chloe having lived almost all of her life in England and studying at Durham, the two eventually forge a friendship through WhatsApp and Spotify.
In the background of their flirtatious music recommendations – film scores and classical pieces from him, up-tempo pop songs from her – is the increasing impact of the protests. AJ Yi is clever in the shift between genres, as their romantic and comedic notes gradually fade into a compelling, deeply felt dramatic script. By having the bulk of protests’ initial mentions come during Chloe and Jonathan’s conversations, we are able to see them grow from an inconvenience to his commute and fascination of hers on the news, into a central part of his life and something she can’t understand the full weight of.
A third character is the source of the play’s political weight, while Jonathan is still desperately avoiding taking any side in the conflicts. As Mr Chu, a custodian at HKU and long-time political advocate, Zak Shukor brings a lived-in quality to the role, making it immediately believable that he has been fighting to be heard and watching his home have its freedoms threatened for much too long. When the story moves forward through the months of protesting and increasingly dire living conditions of the participants, he brings subtle changes to his physicality – Chu’s age begins to show more apparently in both his behaviour and his mannerisms, and Shukor brings the frustrated energy of a man still determined to fight to the surface of his being.
Where Chloe exists on the periphery of the political narrative, communicating through WhatsApp and phone calls, Mei Mei Macleod has the most physical of the three roles. In a metaphor for her distance, both physical and emotional, from the real goings on in Jonathan’s life, director Emily Ling Williams keeps Chloe off the stage itself once she’s left Hong Kong. This also works as a metaphor for her difficulty establishing a connection to her roots – when Mr Chu clarifies that there is a divide between “Hong Kongers” and “people from Hong Kong”, Chloe’s almost entirely Anglicised upbringing threatens to escalate from a cultural difference to a genuine, insurmountable divide.
Macleod’s performance is electric, animated, and well-balanced against her co-stars’ more sedate turns. Even when, in the opening scenes, she shares the stage with Jonathan, her brashness and unencumbered sharing of opinions separate them as people. Bubbly more than she is brash, Macleod helps to sell Chloe as outspoken and bantering, where she could be read on paper as rude or condescending. From her introductory critiquing of the wedding DJ playing “Blurred Lines” to some ill-advised social media posts, Macleod instils Chloe with the energy of someone who never means harm but isn’t as aware of the harm she could do as she ought to be.
Yi opts to reduce Chloe’s role in the second act, where the protest storyline fully shifts into place as the core narrative. Coupled with Williams’ decision to keep her on the literal outside of Jonathan and Mr Chu’s time on stage, this further sells the disconnect. She wants to be part of a revolution, and to connect to her roots, but Yi’s script drops in enough moments of her being ill-informed or stereotyping the Asian community – comparing them to African Americans in their approach to protests with no thought for the differing contexts – that we aren’t too surprised to realise she lacks the tools or knowledge to achieve either.
Rounding out the onstage trio as Jonathan, Liam Lau-Fernandez gives a much more measured, slow-building performance. He’s a charming and funny leading man in those early, romance-laden moments, but digs deep when the politics of the piece come to the forefront. His fear and frustration visibly increase, and an explosive monologue towards the show’s finale allows him to sink his teeth into some quality dramatic acting, where Lau-Fernandez unleashes pent up fury so passionately it’ impossible not to believe. With his character’s journey being the central focus of a play built around real and horrifying events, his performance cements Playlist as a must-see piece of theatre.
Visually, the play is simple but immediately arresting. Designed by Liam Bunster, Tetris-like blocks surround the stage itself, used not only for the storage and movement of various props – and an ingeniously simple set change mid-scene – but providing a metaphorical ocean for Chloe and Jonathan to exist on opposite sides of. His costume work keeps things grounded in reality – Mr Chu and Jonathan, a custodian and a student, respectively, keep to the same clothes for much of the show, while Chloe sports new and colourful ensembles each time she re-enters the space. Without any context at all, it would be clear how different their worlds are. Sound design provided by Jamie Ye is used largely, at first, to blare the catchy songs Chloe is sending and the chilled piano melodies Jonathan returns – however, Ye’s work is later essential in creating a world of fear and violence, with gentle background sounds and the stirring use of original compositions by Nicola T. Chang to create the real highs and lows of a life protesting for what you believe in.
Emily Ling Williams and Sarita Piotrowski, the show’s movement director, have helped shape these strong acting performances into stellar physical representations of the different types of being involved with such political actions. Part of keeping Macleod outside of Bunster’s stage is that Chloe’s energised, fast-moving persona becomes literal as she jogs around the theatre to keep up with her cross-continental conversations. Meanwhile, as age and difficulty of mobility begin to manifest in Shukor’s performance, Lau-Fernandez stands taller, becomes more decisive in his movements, and lends Jonathan an increasing air of strength – physical and emotional.
A final, and all-important, shout out must go to the show’s lighting and video from Gillian Tan. From entering the space and seeing the title emblazoned against the back wall, to black outs and strobe effects helping to give us insight into what the characters are seeing that the minimalist approach means is out of our view, Tan’s work is magnificent. In a final, incendiary moment, footage from the real-life protests plays against the wall of the auditorium, as the characters simply stop what they were doing and watch – in this moment, the piece’s power is undeniable, and the emotions rich and deserved.
Powerful in both its subject matter and its presentation, A Playlist for the Revolution proves once again the ability of the arts to advance important conversations and help us to navigate complex political landscapes. The work is daring, perfectly paced, and so well-constructed that I found myself in awe of how all of these bold, intelligent choices came together without ever causing any clash or overwhelming of the material. Simply put, this is a show not to be missed, and a message not to be ignored.
A Playlist for the Revolution plays at the Bush Theatre until August 5th.
For tickets and information visit https://www.bushtheatre.co.uk/event/a-playlist-for-the-revolution/
Photos by Craig Fuller