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Review: Liberation Squares (Brixton House)

Review by Sam Waite

 

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

 

All of us will, at some point, have said something in anger. For many of us, this will have been posted somewhere online, to be either deleted later or seemingly forgotten about. A new play by Sonali Bhattacharyya, Liberation Squares asks us to face a daunting question: “What if the words you said, no matter their intent, came under the scrutiny of a higher body of power?”

 

Teenage besties Ruqaya and Sabi have been inseparable for as long as anyone can remember – Ruqaya’s brashness and penchant for a rap verse may clash with Sabi’s demureness and adoration for graphic novels, but by their GCSE year nothing has divided them so far. That is, nothing until growing influencer Xara transfers to their school, bringing her 20,000 followers and partnership with an initiative called Safe Sisters, which starstruck Ruqaya follows merrily into. When a disagreement between Sabi and Xara results in Safe Sisters reclaiming the phone they’d gifted Xara as part of her work as their representative, her vitriol online begins to get the girls into more trouble than they could ever have anticipated.



An ode to the creativity of teenagers, and a rallying cry against not only the Prevent surveillance programme, but others like it, Liberation Squares is presented as a rough mixed-media presentation after the story has concluded. Writing key information on whiteboards, speaking to an audience we presume are behind their screen, and providing live beatboxing and pre-programmed beats to back the storytelling, the girls veer between their presentation and flashbacks to the actual events. Director Milli Bhattia handles these transitions nicely, creating an atmosphere in which having an actor turn to the audience means unquestionably that we are now back in their makeshift recording studio.

 

Troubling as the story is, three girls accused of being potential terrorists simply because Xara’s tirade contained a few too many references to political figures, Bhattacharyya’s play is actually very funny. Alongside the scheming and messy attempt at a heist to retrieve the phone, there’s also a lot of the bravado and self-doubt that coexist in all young people. Sabi will burst into an excited comparison to a Marvel hero, only to fall into dejection when it’s met with disdain, while bawdy and outspoken Ruqaya will jump into defensiveness the moment the work she claims such pride in isn’t a roaring success. Xara’s ditzy, well-researched but only-loosely understood TikToks about forgotten women in history are a perfect ode to, and jab at, the Gen Z stereotype of activism in terms of how it can benefit the activist, but the trio of characters have enough genuine heart that their shortcomings are much more endearing than irritating.



The cast, who sub in for any minor player in their mostly-insular story, are all strong performers and utterly committed to their parts. Vaneeka Dadhria (Ruqaya), Asha Hassan (Sabi), and Halema Hussain (Xara) are all believably teenage, with all the at-the-surface emotions and lack of self-control that entails. Scenes of both sisterly affection and catty back and forths both land so easily, thanks in large part to the palpable chemistry between these three shining stars. Marianne Samuels, too, must be commended for her work as dialect coach, giving the girls distinct, small-town accents to really sell how small their problems ought to be before Prevent blows them so far out of proportion.

 

Elena Peña provides the original beats, composed for the show and believably part of Ruqaya’s ever-growing repertoire – they’re great, but the composer has the sense to not make anything too complicated or that we might doubt a 15-year-old having produced. These are complimented beautifully by Dadhria’s genuinely strong beatboxing – when Ruqaya says she’s gotten sick at beat-boxing, the audience chuckles before realising just how true the statement was. Designer Tomás Palmer also helps sell the world of these social-media stars in the making, a simple raised platform and rolling whiteboards being surprisingly versatile tools for a variety of staging choices.

 


A strong play with an important message at its core, Nottingham Playhouse, Brixton House and Fifth Word all place themselves firmly on the side of progress with Liberation Squares. With dynamic performances and a finely-tuned sense of social justice, the story is relatable both for its everyday touches of teenage falling out and online beef, but for the more harrowing idea that any of us, at any time, could be accused of being a major threat to others, simply because we name checked the wrong list of historic figures.

 

Liberation Squares plays at Brixton House until May 11th

 

 

 

To learn more about the case against Prevent visit https://www.amnesty.org.uk/prevent

 

Photos by Ali Wright

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