The Birmingham Rep –until Saturday 27th August 2022
Reviewed by Amarjeet Singh
Counting and Cracking is a joyful and heart-breaking tale of love, political conflict, patriotism, belonging, displacement, movement and being stuck. A profoundly emotive narrative of parents and children, culture and belonging, loss and being reunited, it’s an endearing and ground-breaking performance that will capture hearts and minds. A play for the people about people.
The epic story follows the journey of one Sri Lankan-Australian family over four generations, from 1956 to 2004, opening with Radha and her son Siddhartha who are shifting into a new phase of their lives. Radha arrived in Sydney 21 years ago while pregnant with her son, Siddhartha. Going by the name of ‘Sid’ and fully embracing the Aussie way of life, Siddhartha doesn’t know much about his families past, and he has his mind firmly fixed on the future. Struggling for independence, having moved out of his mother’s home in Pendle Hill, studying media studies and falling in love with a Yolgnu woman, his relationship with his mother and his rich heritage is growing weaker by the day.
Meanwhile Radha, feisty and fiery, widowed before leaving for Australia, is considering going on a date with a chatty workman employed by her son to fit an air-conditioning unit for her. A vulnerable and daring move, its Radha’s way of looking to put the mystery of the past behind her and embrace the life she must live now. Radha still holds on to remnants of the past, she keeps her grandfather’s ashes under her bed and has done so for 21 years. She can’t quite bring herself to let go of him and the past, but now, she thinks, this might be the time.
But just as both Radha and Siddhartha feel they can move on, their entire world is turned upside down. Radha receives a phone call from Sri Lanka, that in an instant, changes the trajectory of their lives. We move through time and space, going back to Radha’s life as a young woman in Colombo and follow her journey, and Siddhartha’s to Australia. As we witness the events of the past colliding with the present, and the riots of Black July – the start of the Sri Lankan Civil War between the Tamil militants and the government of Sri Lanka, we are left reckoning with how much we are all shaped by the family who came before us, those who govern us and the people around us and how these influence the choices we make.
Counting and Cracking showcases the talents of 19 performers, three of whom are musicians who sit and perform on stage alongside the actors. The performers hail from six different countries, the majority play multiple roles and the show is performed in English, Tamil and Sinhalese, with live translation into English. The cast as a whole were incredible but there were stand out performances by Rodney Afif, Prakash Balwadi, Shiv Palekar, Sukhbir Singh Walia, Kaivalya Suvarna, Nadie Kammallaweera, Abbie-Lee Lewis, Vaishnavi Suryaprakash and Sukania Venugopal.
Counting and Cracking has a duration of 3 and a half hours. The co-writer and directors, Shakthidharan and Flack, have divided these momentous moments into three strongly defined acts with two intervals. Each act encompasses a particular part of the action and has its own cliff hanger, which adds to the steadily mounting tension of the final act. The final act is a masterpiece of emotional manoeuvring, to enable the audience insight into the beginnings of the war itself and how it affected those involved. It is driven with breath-taking and powerful momentum, and as it unfolds you are left in no doubt that this is a crucial work for our times. Counting and Cracking theatrically demonstrates how easily musings of differences, feelings of injustice and interfering leaders can rip a society apart. It depicts how the voices of those who desperately want to hold society together can forcefully and effectively be silenced, and how individual lives are defined forever as a result.
There are those who question the length of the play but having just seen an astounding production of Richard III with a 2-hour first act, it proves it’s hard to condense epic tales in a one size fits all box, and the 2 intervals offer ample comfort and refreshment breaks and time to take in what you have just experienced.
Counting and Cracking is a play full of quick witted and sophisticated humour, both physical and verbal. Amidst all the emotional trials and tribulations, its genuinely funny and the audience were laughing out loud throughout the performance, at the appropriate times. This gave a wonderful facet to the story and the characters. The narrative structure is tight and artful, almost every single line feels thoroughly thought out, and never ignores the so-human reality of happiness, heartache, and other emotions occurring simultaneously.
The staging is extraordinary, simplistic but effective. The clever sky signs that are never intrusive or distracting but let us know clearly what the dates and locations are for the current scene, were so helpful as we wove in and out of the timeline, however, as I became more engaged with the play and the players, I found myself using them less and less as I knew exactly where I was in the narrative. Moments linger for just the right amount of time before moving to the next, these never felt clunky. The whole of the stage and auditorium was utilised for dramatic effect. The players were like dancers, and the play never felt stuffy or stilted. Although the productions storyline was sometimes heavy, these occasions were peppered with theatrical moments of pure joy, the slip-and-slide, the sea-saw, the intercom, the drill and its dust for example, are carried out by cast members and rudimentary props, a creative delight.
Counting and Cracking is not just a play, it’s an immersive experience which welcomes you into its multicultural and multilingual world. You are warmed from the taste of Sri Lanka, during the interval, with bowls of lentil curry, roti and rice, which is included as part of the evening and the price of your ticket. You are wowed with an abundance of colour, continual humour and charm, characters that leap off the stage (literally), fully realised and completely endearing. You are enlightened at the plight of the Sri-Lankan struggles and identify with individuals’ personal grapples with change. Counting and Cracking is a beautiful story of love, vulnerability, strength, power and identity.
Shakthidharan has woven a brilliant and beautiful tapestry of people, places, and timelines within a tale that has strong political points that it succeeds in making, whilst always maintaining believable characterisation and credible storytelling. He has ultimately created an overall amazing piece of theatre which I would urge you all to experience for yourselves