Venue: National Theatre
Writer: Prasanna Puwanarajah Director: Polly Findlay
Official Synopsis: Abirami is English. And Sri Lankan. And a professional cricketer. Tomorrow she makes her debut for England against Sri Lanka, but tonight she faces a relentless bowling machine in a one-on-one session to prepare her for the innings of her life. As the night draws on, she challenges our preconceptions of politics, sport and national pride as harshly as she challenges her own.
Going to the theatre is a rare occurrence for me, but since we are cricket-mad Sri Lankans, a group of Geckos decided to give this one a go. The play opens with Abirami, a fiery northerner, starting a net session against the bowling machine Merlin. Meanwhile she addresses the audience, conveying her nervous excitement for the match ahead whilst recounting tales of cricketing legends such as Michael Atherton. It’s a low-key start, but cricket fans will appreciate her admiration of the game, which is quite poetic despite the coarse language. There is of course no real cricket being played, but clever production tricks almost convince you otherwise. The sound design is timed perfectly – the beep of the machine, the thud of the bounce, the satisfying crack of bat on ball or whoosh of a missed ball against the net – these sounds establish the rhythm of the performance. Further selling this physical reality, the invisible ball seems to ricochet off lights and crash into other elements of the room (to the extent that some audience members instinctively recoiled if a shot was played their way). Kudos to actress Stephanie Street for an engaging, and surely exhausting, one-woman show.
Gradually the monologue reveals details of her backstory and introduces the play’s more topical political themes. Abirami’s frustrations are directed around a multitude of targets – the LTTE and its supporters, the Government, protesters, cricket fans and the cricket establishment, and especially her own family. In particular she expresses disappointment in her late father; his passivity and inability to take sides perceived as weakness. Increasingly flustered, her stroke play becomes more erratic and rushed, until Merlin malfunctions and Abirami has to fend off a storm of frightful 90mph deliveries.
A confused character, her fast-paced reasoning can be hard to follow – particularly, I imagine, for those less aware of Sri Lanka’s recent history. Within a brisk 45-minute running time, the script is thematically overloaded, though frequent humour softens the tone. Despite not really providing any new insights into the conflict, the play accurately captures the confusion experienced by British Sri Lankans these days. It also made me realise the impact of the conflict on issues such as identity for many second generation Sri Lankans growing up in the UK. By comparison, the war hardly featured in my own upbringing, and when it did, things seemed more black and white than they do now. The play should also be commended for being even handed without being timid, which is a tricky line to balance. All in all, a thought-provoking show, which earned rapt applause from the mostly non-Sri Lankan audience.