Liberation Squares – Nottingham Playhouse

Reviewer: James Garrington

Writer: Sonali Bhattacharyya

Director: Milli Bhatia

Ruqaya and Sabi behave like typical schoolgirls do. They hang out together, beat-box, go to school. They choose which bus stop they use because they need to see if a bully has boarded the bus and they need to avoid her. It all seems totally normal. Then one day they meet social media influencer Xara and their lives change, starting to skip school and make TikToks. They spend time at the charity-run creative writing workshop that’s opened in what used to be the local library, but then there’s a falling-out between Xara and the workshop management. She lashes out by making a video denouncing them and encouraging people to stand up against what is, in her view, an unfair system – and it’s a video that catches the eye of the authorities, resulting in the girls coming under surveillance and questioned under the government’s Prevent counter-terrorism programme.

The cast of three works hard throughout to get the messages across. Vaneeka Dadhria adds some good beat-boxing skills to her performance as Ruqaya, with Asha Hassan giving us a suitably academic and more reserved Sabi alongside her. Halema Hussain’s Xara provides good contrast, with more focus on her image and an ability to persuade other people to her views. Tomás Palmer has given us a simple static set with a large multi-purpose block centre stage, though it seems that this creates as much of a barrier as it does an opportunity to provide a platform for standing or sitting on.

This is an overwhelmingly political play carrying some very serious messages and themes. There’s a library that has had to close, youth clubs have been shut down, the only place for young people to meet is run by a charity that may have funding withdrawn at any moment if anything happens to rock the boat. It has racism, Islamophobia, references to colonial violence. More than anything it’s a denunciation of the Prevent programme, and the way the statistics show that it mostly targets young people and the Muslim community in particular – and, if you fit into both categories, what can result from a spur-of-the-moment decision to make a video in a country where protest is becoming increasingly criminalised.

Clearly, there are some strongly-felt messages here to put across, but it feels that the 75-minute running time doesn’t give enough space for everything to be developed as well as it could. Characters feel underdeveloped, and some of the messages are referenced only in passing. Even the main message that normal teenagers doing what teenagers do can lead to serious problems, especially in an increasingly technology-driven world, and that the chances of it happening vary depending on who you are, somehow feels that it should have been put across more strongly; that could have been achieved by more initial character development, consequences being portrayed more strongly than the girls just talking about being questioned, plus maybe some commentary on Prevent statistics and how the programme targets different communities.

Theatre can provide good opportunities for getting messages like this out to a wider audience, and although this piece broadly achieves that it feels it just needs a bit more.

Runs until 27 April 2024 and on tour

The Reviews Hub Score

Important messages need strengthening

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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