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Review: Between The Lines (New Diorama Theatre)

Review by Harry Bower

 

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

 

It’s the early 2000s. In a run down Hackney council flat sit a family defiantly fighting the system. They do so live-on air, broadcasting infamous pirate radio station Blaze FM to the Greater London area. Be it the police with historical riot investigations, the Home Office, the local authority, a private land developer, or the Government Department of Trade and Industry trying to shut down the station they love; there is conflict and potential trauma at every turn. Yet together, in their safe space, they express themselves through music.

 

In the two hours we spend with the Blaze FM crew over the time period of a decade, it becomes clear why the station and its cast of charismatic talent are such a hit with their audience. Aside from genuinely fantastic music which I’ll come back to, each has their own personality and unique sense of humour. Each endears themself in different ways; each uses their emotional or intellectual intelligence for different reasons. But they all have one thing in common: The Blaze FM family and its enduring message.



Pirate radio OG, Hackney legend and Blaze FM family patriarch Hughbert (Andrew Brown) is a single father to his aspiring lawyer-daughter Aisha (Anais Lone), and DJ-cum-performer Alpha (Aliaano El-Ali). He’s also the adopted father of the wider group. Jason (Alexander Lobo Moreno), a new upstart in the grime world is broken in and given a place to thrive. Sparkz (Nadean Pillay), a soon-to-be podcast host, finds her home on the airwaves and alongside partner Alpha. Pritstick (Marcus Reiss) is a reliable stalwart of Blaze FM and the social circle. The cast is completed by two who seem like outcasts. Stephen (Jake Walden) begs to be a part of a music video in the background but is soon bedding in and making his own waves, and Mute (Daniel Holden) sits humorously throughout the chaos on stage saying not a word but regularly stealing moments with their facial expressions and (lack of) enthusiasm. 

 

The ensemble is a rich melting pot of talent. Each performer gives their all in every moment. It’s quite the achievement to have scenes which feature six or more actors and for each to have their own presence and moment to shine. In writing such an authentic and honest piece, writers James Meteyard and Grime MC Jammz have enabled the development of deeply complex and nuanced characters which fit together perfectly in this social patchwork. Most dialogue is naturalistic and believable and, with the exception of a guitar-accompanied scene at the end which was too predictable and unnecessarily long, the show rarely stalls from a satisfying pace. It’s testament to the performances that although you could easily cut ten minutes from the run time, I didn’t feel like I wanted that - because of how much fun it was spending time in Blaze FM’s world.



That is in large part down to the music in the show which is, frankly, outrageously good. You could make the argument that Between the Lines is actually a musical, though on balance you might call it play with music. The music is staggeringly accomplished both in a catchy can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head kind of way, but also in a “that’s really clever” kind of way. Obviously grime, jungle and drill style music is infamous for its intelligent use of language this show capitalises on that. The tracks don’t just live up to audience expectations, they far exceed them. Make no mistakes - this music is not imitation art. Each of these tracks could be hits in their own right. Each makes an astute observation about inequality, or unfairness, or politics, or an injustice in the narrative, and each track has been crafted as an expression for the characters performing it. On press night the audience reaction to the soundtrack was visceral and it’s easy to see why; the music elevates Between the Lines from a very good play, to an outstanding one.

 

Production quality is also exceptional. Towering blocks of flats and viral music videos are projected onto Tina Torbey’s industrial looking blocky set, layered in its appropriately claustrophobic design, which transforms into the Blaze studio with Alex Forey’s imaginative lighting design. Mic Pool’s video design is immediately impressive and then immediately and seamlessly forgettable, in the most complimentary way possible. The way in which lighting, set and projection work so beautifully together should serve as a case study for other shows attempting (and often failing) to achieve the same thing. When it works this well, it is game-changing.



Between the Lines is a cultural time capsule reopened every night on stage to a captivated audience. The beleaguered stories of families whose origins are post-war immigrants are used as a heartbreaking but effective frame to explore the underground world of pirate radio. Injustice is rife, but so is an inherent sense of perseverance and defiance which manifests itself when your back is up against a wall. It’s inspiring to watch. That said, the piece is not perfect. It is rough around the edges in places. It probably needs trimming, and there are one or two scenes which definitely need revisiting. But, genuinely, this feels like just the beginning for the show and these characters. Whatever happens next, I’ll be tuning in. 

 

P.S - This play is produced by the Big House Theatre Company, and I thought it important to mention them at the end of this review. The Big House is a charity which supports young people leaving care, with a stated aim of breaking the cycle of disadvantage that many find themselves trapped in. A quick read of the information sheet and their website reveals some pretty phenomenal statistics. 75% of participants go into education or employment, 80% say they feel more confident having participated in a ‘project’, and a whopping 100% of participants do not offend or reoffend within 18 months. Theatre, performance, and art - it changes lives. The Big House have produced a piece of art in this play that is both of a high quality itself, but is also having a positive impact for the charity and its participants. Huge kudos to everyone at The Big House, and to New Diorama for their involvement. Find out more about The Big House here.

 

Between the Lines plays at the New Diorama Theatre until 01 June 2024. For more information visit: https://newdiorama.com/whats-on/between-the-lines 

 

Photos by Ali Wright

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