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The post-Thatcher-Major years were a strange time for communities in the U.K. The euphoria that was felt in 1997 when Labour ended nearly 18 years of Conservative dominance in British life would be short-lived. It’s hard to express just how broken and disillusioned communities felt by the Tory government, with morale and any sense of a positive self greatly diminished.


Between the Lines, by Jammz and James Meteyard, takes place during the early 2000s, and from the offset, the political undertones of the play are evident as the opening scene references 9/11 and later the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London. At its core, Between the Lines is a play about fighting for your voice to be heard and for inner-city communities, long ignored by the political establishment, to be seen. There is a richness in the honest reflection of life on a council estate in Hackney, Jammz and Meteyard have created a show that is a powerful ode to a city that is never able to bridge the divide between its communities left behind and the political class.


Blaze FM, a pirate radio station that serves the local community in Hackney, has now come to something of an impasse. Set up by Hughbert, Andrew Brown, the station is struggling to understand the needs of its community in a post-9/11 climate while also playing hide-and-seek with the Department of Trade and Industry. With Hughbert is determined to keep the station alive, even in the face of mounting personal issues, his children, Aisha, Anais Lone, and Alpha, Aliaano El-Ali,  are trying to balance their duty to the station and their needs as a family.


Over the years “the Shut-Down Crew," Sparks, Nadean Pillay, Pritstick, Marcus ReissMute, Daniel Holden, Jason, Alexander Lobo Moreno, and Stephen, Jake Walden, have ensured the station remains a central part of the community. And when Jason and Stephen break through onto the grime scene, Blaze FM takes on even greater significance within the community. Riding high on this positivity, a tragedy within the tight-knit Blaze FM crew, with added governmental attacks on music, places Blaze FM in a precarious situation.


There is a sophistication to the way Jammz and Meteyard have written Between the Lines that few playwrights could muster. As writers, they have created a historic piece without any contemporary discourse that’s admirable and inspired. The playwrights allow the audiences to fully engage with their characters and the challenges they are facing. Further still, Jammz and Meteyard leave their audience with questions that are not so easily answered.


The issues that Blaze FM and “the Shut-Down Crew” face are ones that always tend to cause a stir in society. All arts culture in the U.K. is dominated by an elite who sets the tone for what is acceptable and what isn’t. When something makes money within the mainstream, it becomes acceptable. Grime, jungle, and drill music, as well as rave culture in the 1990s, face unfair comparisons between crime and drugs. New music tends to cause division within society, but there's never an appreciation of the reason why this division happens—it’s because of the connection it has to a youth that's been left behind. 

Ever since the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, certain music, and music creators have had to deal with a false moral outrage over their content aimed to delegitimised new music, which has inevitably resulted in a more difficult path to traverse for musicians. This is heartbreakingly realised when Stephen, already making a name for himself, is banned from performing a song that he'd written as a tribute to one of his fallen crew members. The press are quick tying crime with grime music, and the government is even quicker to pass legislation to outlaw it all, failing Stephen and the message his music has. Angry and confused, Stephen’s track is ultimately his truth, his feelings, and his emotions. The idea of banning his music rather than listening to it and understanding where he’s coming from further alienates and diminishes his experiences. 

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Voices like Stephen are voices of a generation who have lost their community spaces, housing, and safety. They don’t have the freedoms or opportunities that allow them to give back to their communities in the way they want. Instead, they are ignored and seen more as a statistic than a voice to listen to and contemplate. And though Stephen and Jason make it out of the estate, Alpha feels abandoned by them and that his chance has been lost. Here, once again, the playwrights create a narrative that’s realistic and believable. Alpha, while trying to understand his father and the situation he's in, is also envious of where Stephen and Jason are. The struggle within Alpha is for him to find his own voice and path, but he, for some reason, is holding himself back from achieving this.


The relationship between Alpha, Aisha, and their father Hughbert is the heart of the play, as it’s also a representation of black fatherhood that’s never really represented in British culture. Whether on film, TV, or stage, seeing a man like Hughbert is rare, though black men like Hughbert aren’t rare at all. How black families and black men are presented in the media tends to follow a stereotypical narrative that never fails to sting. Jammz and Meteyard give Hughbert substance, a staunch stubbornness, and an unbreakable bond with his children that is breathtaking. Brown has an energy that’s palpable and allows you to feel every word, these words of a man who has been beaten but is never beat. In Hughbert, we get a man who sees how salient home is and how vital the station is for what it represents, not just for him but for the community. The more Hughbert spoke about home, the more I heard Blake’s Jerusalem in my head, home, and community are all essential for life, they help shape our identity, and this identity are worth fighting for.


In being left behind communities like this become broken, and it has nothing to do with the community. Hughbert talks a lot about the issues the community has faced and continues to face even as it goes through a wave of redevelopment and eventually gentrification. The only reason why places in Hackney get earmarked for regeneration isn’t because the communities are being saved but because these spaces become attractive to new investment, which brings new money and new residents. In Hughbert’s voice, there is the strength of a man who, much like a ship captain, is willing to go down fighting for what he believes in.

Hughbert and “the Shut-Down Crew” are the beating heart of their community, this is what they've had to do because nobody wanted to help or listen—they have become voices that offer a desperate youth opportunities as well as become a creative force that is inspiring. In a flash we're shown 2012, a moment of national pride as the U.K. hosted the Olympics producing one of the greatest opening ceremonies in modern history. At the time, a BBC producer said:


Our music was carefully selected to make sure that we included music that appeals to the masses, as well as showcasing acts that were new and established within the British setting.


And yet artists like Stephen and Jason, and grime, jungle, and drill music, are the emerging voices of their generation, are sidelined. This cultural event, like so many others, isn’t for them, as the culture guardians have spent too much time delegitimising their music and silencing their voices. 

"Each actor has tapped into the truth of Jammz and Meteyards text, which has been brought to life by Norriss experienced, skilled, and insightful direction."

There is an overwhelming sense of pain from a legacy of frustration and despondency, that is so succinctly concluded by Mute, Holden, powerful speach. Nothing prepares you for the words and advice he shares, or for the truth he speaks with every word coming from a place of true reflection and experience. Mute’s advice to a quite despondent Alpha is filled with humour, heart, and insight that only come from someone who has found their own peace with their past. Every word is articulated by Holden who sees his character has to pause the commotion for a moment to give advice that is much needed and authentic. 


The company are a tight group who have genuinely connected to the material and have been guided brilliantly by their director, Maggie Norris. Each actor has tapped into the truth of Jammz and Meteyard’s text, which has been brought to life by Norris’s experienced direction. All of the moving parts are masterfully handled, with Norris able to blend the manic multiple-character narratives with several powerful moments of calm and reflection. This is wonderfully captured as Hughbert sits alone in the studio listening and then dancing to a song that means so much to him. In this moment you can't help but feel that this is the first time that Hughbert has been able to really sit and contemplate his next step. Norris gives the audience a moment to really soak in the beauty of this scene, and lets us see what they’re fighting for.


Tina Tobey's set dominates the space yet never feels overly intrusive. Its impact is instant, and the functionality of the set allows the company a great deal of flexibility, making the space feel much more real. The set also serves as the perfect backdrop for Mic Pool’s videography, which adds greater depth to the production. Bringing this all together is Alex Forey's lighting and Jack Baxter’s sound design.


The true test of theatre is its authenticity. This is not something that can’t be faked, from the writer and director to the cast and technical team, finding that authentic voice can be a challenge. Between the Lines comes from the Big House Theatre Company, which is a charity that supports young people leaving care. There are too few opportunities for young people who have experienced the care system in the U.K. to be given this type of opportunity, to step out on the stage at New Diorama. Though the words may be from Jammz and Meteyard what the company has connected with so eloquently is the wider themes of isolation and breakdowns of community. Moreover, perhaps the most salient theme of all is this idea of home and reclaiming one's place in society.

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