Written and directed by Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller, Chagos 1971 is a highly innovative piece of student theatre that exposes the pervading legacy of British Imperialism with flair and sophistication. Set against the backdrop of a US-UK political trade agreement, this production explores one of the biggest forced expulsions in recent history, which displaced over 2,000 native inhabitants in the ‘uninhabited’ territory of the Chagos Archipelago.
Though complex, Brimmer-Beller manages to condense this dispute into 60 minutes of theatrical wonderstuff, explaining his choice of subject: “I wanted to explore a period where lofty ambitions were sagging under political realities … to play out and explore the kind of scenario in which two of the most powerful nations on Earth could possibly have decided to commit an unconscionable act of terrorism on a poor island nation of former slaves. Because they did! And have never really reckoned with it!”
Opting for a minimalist set design, Ant Hall ensured that the staging of this production was explored to its fullest potential. The opening use of levels within this show was inspired, with the make-shift train undoubtedly forming one of the creative highlights of this production. This attention to detail was equally matched by Alison Maclean’s costume design, whose greying of Jack McConnell’s hair proved particularly imaginative. Allied with a cracking soundtrack of 70s music, Ali Al Hamadani also evinced a strong attentiveness to the tech of this production. All cues were bang on time, which proved particularly effective during the scenes that involved telephone conversations and radio programmes.
Regarding the music, Brimmer-Beller explains that “I was struck by how many songs and lyrics were much more cynical than they had been in, say, the late sixties. I wanted every song that came out to be a different example of the disillusionment growing as people realized the 60s essentially didn’t work. ‘Fire and Brimstone’, ‘If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Gonna Go’, ‘You Make Your Own Heaven and Hell Right Here on Earth’, and ‘Hellbound Train’ are much darker than what was playing a few years earlier; by 1971, the concept of hell seemed very prevalent. That feeling hugely influenced the shifting ideologies and motivations of each character within the play.”
With a background in international relations and film studies, Brimmer-Beller elaborates on the inspiration for his piece. “I’ve often seen the intractable influences of both those worlds on the other. We use performance in diplomacy, and speak to world affairs in theatre. Not to mention, the story itself is worth telling! It’s insane! And it only happened 47 years ago, which in the span of British history – British imperial history – is nothing!”
As far as writing is concerned, the script of this production is a perfect mix of wit, politics, and satire, with lines such as “utter bullshit goes down much better in a fancier room”, garnering several laughs from the audience members. The only reservation I have about the dialogue of this production is within the opening scene, wherein the mix of crass humour with existential musings seems ill-placed, and runs the risk of cheapening an, otherwise, high calibre script.
With regards to performance, this really was a stellar-line up of highly talented performers. The performative timing and chemistry between Jack McConnell as Bruce Greatbatch, and Katrina Johnstone as Sarah Ferland, was outstanding. The performer of the evening however, had to be Sophie Boyle with her flawless delivery of Gretchen Spencer, whose clarity of diction and articulation puts this actress in a league of her own.
All in all, Brimmer-Beller’s cast put on a show with an unprecedented professionalism, that is entirely deserving of being sold-out in advance. I hope to see this at the Fringe – no questions asked, this is undoubtedly one to watch.