The Royal Court’s spring season is kicking off big time with Bola Agbaje’s new play downstairs followed immediately upstairs by Anupama Chandrasekhar’s Disconnect, set in a Chennai (formerly Madras) call centre collecting credit card debts from America.
It’s this inside out view of the global recession as it affects, and infects, the suddenly not so impersonal recovery agents, that gives the play its originality and spark.
In some ways it’s a traditional work place piece, with a conflict in management, deadline pressure on results, internal bickering and dreams of escape.
But the desk wallahs here – American-accented Ross (Nikesh Patel), trying to raise a student visa for his brother; the haughty but vulnerable Vidya (Ayesha Dharker), fighting off amorous rivalries; new boy Giri (Neet Mohan) with big city ideas – are caught in a crisis of identity, too, which threatens to overwhelm their servile status in the credit card chain.
The firm’s contract with the Visa-style “True Blue” company is up for renewal and the play opens with smooth executive Jyothi (Hasina Haque), also known as “Sharon,” criticizing the performance of middle-aged office chief Avinash (Paul Bhattacharjee) and brutally downgrading him from “New York” to “Illinois.”
This is the cubed workplace designed by the Cats and Les Miserables maestro John Napier – returning to the little theatre where he started – fitted out with neon lights, stamped-over credit bills, and magically mobile desk units, with a Chennai rubbish tip glowing in the dark as a fantasy simulacrum of the Chicago skyline.
As Ross gets sucked into a desperate situation with a distant creditor and Vidya crumbles guiltily at news of a client’s suicide, the play takes on an allegorical power as both inverted American charade, complete with Independence Day fancy-dress party; and microcosm of the economic collapse, with over-extended credit, failure to reach targets and even an outburst of Downing Street-style bad temper and violence.
Indhu Rubasingham’s clever, well cast and touchingly played production needs a bit more punch in the middle, and the wild scenes could be wilder.
But this is another feather in the Court’s cap, a curry-hot play for today, full of imaginative wit and feeling. I’ll never be impatient again (well, I’ll try) when I get one of those barely audible business calls from, or referrals to, the Indian sub-continent.