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BY KIieran Hurley
Directed by Ned Campbell co-director Eloise Poulton 
Till April 27th 

25 April, 2024
all images © Tom Snell
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Johnno McCreadle, 15, lives at home in Livingson, Scotland with his mum, but Livingston offers little for a teenage boy aching to begin life. With his best friend ‘Spanner’, a car, and a Southerner called ‘D’ something, Johnno gets the chance to head out of Livingston and go to his first rave. Set against the backdrop of the 1994 Criminal Justice and Order Act, which intended to outlaw music that had a succession of repetitive beats, Beats unpacks a variety of narratives that explore social isolation, fear, regret, and confusion. It’s a play about people trying to find their way and their place in this world.


Beats is more than a coming-of-age drama; it’s a play about trying to find your identity in a world that is intent on holding you back. It’s a play about having a deep feeling of knowing where you want to go but having no idea or opportunity to get there. Beats is deeply touching, honest, raw, and eloquently draws its audience into the 1990s rave scene, despondent youth, and political machinations that are guaranteed to repeat themselves.


Storytelling is an art in and of itself, and it’s this purity of telling a story that grips and engages audiences. On reflection, Beats gently fits into this category as the audience is implored to use their imagination by Ned Campbell as he begins to bring Beats to life.


Kieran Hurley’s Beats debuted at the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe with DJ Johnny Whoop, gaining great notices. There is a genuine beauty in the text that allows Campbell, who introduces himself and Sound Director/DJ Tom Snell as ‘Kieran and Johnny,' (which is a nod to the original production) to deliver impeccable, fully realised characters. Beats is a play that’s aptly revived by a creative team who infuse genuine authenticity, honesty, and respect for the playwright and his themes, leaving you speechless. Campbell and co-director Eloïse Poulton let every scene breathe and, in just an hour, allow you to enter a world that you didn’t want to leave.


When Johnno stands there in the rave, his body feeling every beat creating a euphoric moment that’s likely to be etched in his soul, you can’t help but appreciate his feeling of freedom. Campbell never breaks into full dance, there is movement and moments of Campbell really feeling the music, but he holds back fully embracing it, and rightly so. These scenes become a masterclass in theatre and storytelling, with Campbell, Snell, and Alex Lewer creating such realism that it is within these moments you can feel sweat dripping off of your forehead. Switching from character to character only adds to the euphoria Campbell brings out of Johnno’s experience, and it’s also a heartbreaking realisation of what is lost when we ban or criminalise people's need to express themselves. Censoring the self is to hobble progress, development, and social movement. The nostalgic elements of the text highlight just how bleak the 1990s were but how, even in the face of this bleakness, there was a creative energy desperate to get out.

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There’s great care given to the way Campbell realises the multitude of characters, offering the audience a little glimpse into their secret world. With Johnno’s mother, Campbell makes you feel her fear, frustration, and confusion that she is experiencing. She knows her only son is growing up, and with that, they’re also going to grow apart. An empty nest for a single mum with an only child can be a really lonely place. As they sit in the car, on their way home, Campbell injects such beautiful sympathy for both Johnno and his mother. For the former, this whole experience is his first step into manhood, and for the latter, perhaps it is her own realisation that she has to let go and start living her life. It’s hard to express how real this scene felt. You could hear the bump of the wheels on the road and the near muted sound of the early morning passing by. As Campbell switches from mother to son, you can feel these two conflicting characters emotions, but also a polite resolution: everything is going to be alright. Campbell brings this level of authenticity to 'Spanner', PC Robert's, his Sergeant and even Robert's imagined father, he never makes them feel forced or contrived. 


Premiering Beats in 2012 might have been a coincidence. That summer, as the world's gaze was on arguably one of the greatest Olympic opening ceremonies in modern history, one that would highlight the ingenuity of the British across social, political, and cultural avenues, Beats was premiering a different, much more authentic reality of life in the UK that is far from this soft-soap on the BBC. Though Beats takes place in 1994, if we move forward just six years to 2018, Drill Music became the new cause du jour, and much like the rave culture of the 1990s, rather than understand and embrace this new music, they sought to ban it.


Hurley's writing is akin to that of Sarah Kane, Joe Orton, and Andrea Dunbar, playwrights who had the ability to create theatre that wasn’t just impactful but had substance and meaning. It’s a rare trait for a young playwright to have this type of insight, to use their own lived experiences, and there are far fewer opportunities given to playwrights like Hurley to have the platform to have these stories heard. 


Every word written in Beats comes from an authentic place, and an actor has to have a real ability to convey the truth within Hurley’s text that can’t be faked. An actor has to not only believe the words but also connect to them in a way that allows for these voices to come out. Campbell has a magnetism that one could compare to that of Sir Mark Rylance, you're drawn into Beats by a pull from Campbell that is undeniable. The connection Campbell has to Hurley’s text is evident in how he moves, talks, and explores these characters and the believability he brings to each one of them.


Snell’s DJ set is wonderfully overlayed with news reports, TV themes, and radio broadcasts from the 1994, adding more context to the piece. There is, at times, a subtleness to the way Snell brings the music to life that is engaging and paced in a way that he’s almost teasing the audience. This tease was best imagined when Johnno is in his room listening to Ultra-Sonic’s Annihilating Rhythm Parts 1&2. Johnno’s description of hearing the roar of the crowd, how this consumes him, and with the music blearing Campbell’s face capturing Johnno’s moment of realisation, is stunningly effective. 

"There has been a constant battle between the wishes, wills, and desires of teenagers and the desperation of the political establishments to police, control, demonise, and diminish anything they want. From the outset, what they wanted and needed was for their voices to be heard."

Throughout the play, Lewer’s lighting design adds a flawless touch to the production, which makes it look and feel bigger than it is. Much like the direction, music, and performance, Lewer’s lighting has an essential part to play, and like everything else about this production, it has to be authentic; you have to feel that everything is real. In this, Lewer doesn’t disappoint. 


In a show that starts off by asking its audience to use their imagination, a little time after leaving the show, I started to think about Johnno’s favourite hoody, this oversized green thing with a hood that covers his face. I imagined that there was a deeper significance to this; perhaps it was his dad's, and it’s one of the few things he’s kept from him. It’s the hoody he’s wearing at the rave, and I imagined that as much as Johnno was up for the rave, there was also some trepidation, and that his favourite green hoodie was acting, in a way, as a piece of security, familiarity, and protection.

Drugs, rave, culture, and youth treading paths that aren’t what they want have been something teenagers have been dealing with since the the 1950s. There has been a constant battle between the wishes, wills, and desires of teenagers and the desperation of the political establishments to police, control, demonise, and diminish anything they want. From the outset, what they wanted and needed was for their voices to be heard. Music has always seemed to be the one constant attack that the political establishments use to try and break the youth and trivialise their frustrations. In the history of music and youth rebellion sitting side by side, popular music is the soundtrack of the youth generation; it’s this one brilliant constant that charts their lives, experiences, and hopes. For most politicians, music is also an easy target to try to force hardline voices bemoaning the youth who want to break free. On a sociopolitical level, it’s also about taking away joy and creative freedom.


Beats provides an interesting alternative to all of this. It doesn’t hypotheses a what if scenario but does, through a later discussion on the 2020 student protests, show how no lessons have been learned from the past, with youth voices still sidelined, silenced and ignored. But for one brief hour we get to see and experience what liberation, friendship and expression could be like.

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