Saturday, 10 November 2007

116) Five Tanks, Hackney Empire

Considering the number of struggling actors, musicians, artists etc who have done time in call-centres while they’re waiting for their next gig, you’d think that the call-centre play would develop into a mini-genre of its own. The inherent absurdity of call-centre work - nightmarish yet preposterous at the same time – ought to provide young writers with a rich source of comic potential and surreal drama. But that alas is not the case. To the best of my knowledge, there aren’t that many call-centre plays out there, although Lab Ky Mo’s sophomore effort Five Tanks tries to go some of the way to fill that gap.

Let me say at the outset that there was quite a bit of promise in the play and plenty to like. For a start, not many contemporary plays based in London do full justice to its bewildering ethnic diversity. But Lab Ky Mo himself is of Chinese origin, and he’s taken into account the rich mix of peoples in this crazy capital. Call centres tend to draw people from all kinds of backgrounds, and that is faithfully reflected in the play. The setting is a call centre in Hackney: the callers are trying to conduct a government survey of minority business owners, their supervisors are trying to keep up the ‘strike rate’, and in the meantime it’s Ramadan and there’s been a bomb scare on the number 26 bus that cuts through the heart of Hackney.

Two of the characters are Muslim even. Not one, but two! One of them is Rehana, a typical East London girl, cute, hijabi and full of spunk. She’s assistant supervisor to Nick, a harried lad who hates his job – not an unreasonable feeling given that on the morning of his birthday, he is finding that getting his callers to actually make calls is harder than trying to herd cats. They are a fractious lot, to say the least. Bronwyn is the typical call-centre employee – ugly and badly dressed, she’s a failed actress with faded dreams. (In fact, how someone like Bronwyn could ever make it in the acting profession is a mystery. The character had zero style.) Saeed is the newbie, a black guy who used to be a trader in the City, but he got laid off and has now decided to keep his hand in by working in a call centre – he turns up dressed to work in a natty suit and tie! (I must say that that character didn’t convince either. Maybe Lab Ky Mo has met actual City folk in call centres, but they’re not very likely to deal with a spell of unemployment by doing this kind of work. Not in my experience anyway, but I could be wrong.) Like Rehana, Saeed is also Muslim and causes a bit of a kerfuffle on his very first day by demanding to pray during work hours.

Bronwyn and Saeed are the weakest links in the play. The cast is rounded up by Erno, a fast-talking Irishman who’s served in Iraq and who’s saving up to go to Australia to see his estranged wife and daughter; and Dougal, a man drifting through life, who I thought was the most interesting character of the lot. I used to know people like Dougal. Back in the Lost Years, I did two spells of call-centre work myself – first in Oxford and then in Glasgow – and Dougal reminded me of some of my colleagues. The ‘genuine strivers’. People who managed to immerse themselves in their meaningless work, who would come to work 10 minutes ahead of time and spend every minute in earnest effort and sincere calling. I mean it was (and still is) nothing more than minimum-wage slavery - and the most soul-deadening slavery at that - but working alongside people like Dougal and Richard, you’d never get that impression.


That’s what I liked about Lab Ky Mo’s writing – he’s faithfully captured some of the ‘types’ that work inside these hellholes, and he could only do it because he’s done time himself. He also captured some of the surreal pettiness that sours this kind of work. The insistence on ‘signing in’ at the correct times if you want to be paid for your work, and that unfailing injunction - ‘stick to the script’! Lord, they brought back memories! I always had trouble sticking to the script. At the Phone Room in Oxford, I had a couple of disciplinary meetings because of it, with that slick swine whose name I forget, a more oleaginous asshole in the workplace I haven’t met since. He’d call me up to the meeting room and play back my calls to me and then upbraid me. Sigh. It all feels like such a long time ago - and yet not long enough.

And then there were the breaks. Ahh the breaks. Rushing out to catch a fag or three in the 10 mins allotted to you, standing outside a bleak industrial shed in a nameless industrial park, hunched over next to the brick wall, trying to catch a ray of weak sunshine which in turn is trying to break through the grey cloud cover. All I remember from my call-centre breaks is the cloud cover. Does the sun ever come out over a call centre? Probably not. Only that one time I remember, summer of 2005, when for a few days the sun shone over Glasgow and we went out and sat in the lawn and burned ourselves up in the heat. But that was the only time. The rest of the time, it was cold, grey, hunch, fag. Scuffling your shoes in the industrial grit.

The odd thing is that like the characters, I too was in the call centre that morning of 7/7. It was called RHL. (Lab Ky Mo’s one is called ISS.) Surfing online, I was one of the first to learn about what had happened in London, and I called up my neighbours as soon as the news broke. More parallels…


But yes. Back to Five Tanks. Why Five Tanks by the way - a bit of a non sequitur, surely? It’s actually a reference to Erno’s time in Iraq, a battle that took place in a wadi. So, nothing to do with call centres really. Five Tanks – rather like Three Kings!

What about the play’s weaknesses? Alas, these were legion too. Although Lab Ky Mo has already met with some success on the arthouse/indie film circuit, the theatre game is new to him, and his inexperience showed through in the script as well as in the direction. Firstly, the humour - it fell rather flat. There were some good one-liners that raised a few chuckles, but these were few and far between. A funnier writer would have made hay with this kind of material, call centres being natural goldmines of comic surrealism. But not our Lab, so this was definitely a missed opportunity for him. (Don’t you just love saying that name though? I certainly do – Lab Ky Mo, Lab Ky Mo!)

>Some of the acting was weak as well – Bronwyn, Rehana and Saeed coming to mind here. This was partly due to the poor pacing and plotting – deliberate dialogue can also be deadly dull at times, and such longeuers almost took over the middle part of the play last night. Bad choices by the director there. The play was always at its most engaging when the fast talkers were on show – Erno the soldier and Nick the supervisor. When Bron and Saeed opened their mouths, it usually started to flag. The Braveheart speech was a serious bit of idiocy, though perhaps of a piece with Bronwyn’s utterly lurid character. But, in general, slow and stilted is not the way to go with this kind of stuff. D’ye hear me, Lab – you want fast and cracking!<

The level of detail about Muslim life was commendable – Lab Ky Mo is definitely an open-minded fella. But they should have gotten Saeed’s prayer movements right – this is something they always manage to get wrong, whether on stage or on screen. There was also a bit of attraction between Nick and Rehana, some heavy cross-cultural flirting going on - but that storyline was kept firmly under wraps.

Still, when all is said and done, Lab Ky Mo has learnt the most important lesson of all, which is that if you start well and finish well, your audience will forgive you a lot in the middle, and this was certainly the case last night. Lab Ky Mo finished strongly. The audience was well pleased at the end and congratulated Lab Ky Mo on the way out. He had been sitting right in front of me during the whole play. The only pity is that more people didn’t show up to see it - the galleries were barely half full. I think, with a bit of tightening up, a lot more Londoners could enjoy this entertaining piece.

So mo pawa to Lab Ky Mo. Lab Ky Mo! Lab Ky Mo!

P.S. Looks like the cute hijabi girl is actually a Bangladeshi rapper from Manchester. Give it up for Sarah Sayeed!

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