Can a playlist change the world?

This question, with its focus on protest music, relationships, and the spirit of revolution is what lies at the heart of AJ Yi’s brilliantly clever, hyper-poppy story of revolution that builds in power to a heartening crescendo. Starting out with a meet-cute before unfolding an exploration of its protagonist, Jonathan (Liam Lau-Fernandez)’s awakening from square economics student to impassioned agitator, the piece unpacks what it means to be ‘from’ Hong Kong, and how to hold onto an identity so heavily threatened by the ruthless tide of Chinese suppression.

Credit: Craig Fuller

Its politics are clear and pleasingly complex, uttering a loud cry for the cultural legacy of the island while revealing the strains and trauma of a people pushed to the edge during the 2019-20 protests. But its true achievement lies in how it weaves these into a deeply personal story of a young man trying to understand his place in history, his relationship with where he’s from and with the rest of the world — notably a Britain that once controlled it and still fails to fully understand.

This latter perspective is partially voiced by Mei Mei Macleod’s endlessly playful second-generation British-Chinese law student, who cheers Jonathan on over the phone with empowering discourses on music and activism — perfectly channelling the spirit of ‘68 with loud patterned flares and crocheted crop tops. All of Liam Bunster’s modern styling is revealing of something — a series of boxes around the central stage become stepping stones, parcels, buildings, and the transition from an orderly university halls party to mid-revolutionary chaos is done with panache. Some highly innovative floor projections create a sense of the space, rhythm and electricity of HK, and the sense of distance and geography is effectively worked into the space.

Director Emily Ling Williams masterfully navigates the many phone calls, using the ‘gap’ around the central playing space as a tool for mediating the frustration and misunderstandings that plague the ‘young (sort-of) lovers’ conversations. How these evolve, and Jonathan’s character development are huge strengths of the piece, and Lau-Fernandez carries the transition with ease (and some very impressive dance moves). His guidance towards a fighter’s passion by a revolutionary mentor, janitor and proto-father figure, Mr Chu (Zak Shukore), provides a captivating and tender reflection on masculine role models, with some scenes reaching a beautiful pitch and showing how protest allows us to connect with people from whom we’d otherwise be estranged.

Credit: Craig Fuller

A Playlist for the Revolution is clever, funny and explores a difficult subject matter with a great deal of understanding. A few moments hold great power, and these drive home the personal connection to a modern-historical narrative that is undeniably relevant and unapologetically Asian. These fleeting sensations of the feelings that exist behind the headlines read by Western audiences reveal the lived experience and impact of the times, showing us that to become connected to something greater than ourselves — through music, mass protest, a cause — is what can change us, and give us something to be truly remembered by.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A Playlist for the Revolution is on at Bush Theatre until 5th August – tickets and info here!

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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