The most enjoyable aspect of Broken English, to me, was the deft and poetic use of language. Language plays a central role in the play, and writer and director Jahmar Ngozi is highly creative with it. ‘English Language’ (played by Rosie-May Jones) is personified as an eccentric woman, who trails off mid-scene into enchanting soliloquies, arguably stealing the best lines in the play. Her speeches are suffused with bountiful imagery, which transported me beyond the confines of the theatre and into far-away galaxies, where words are stars and sentences orbit whole planets.
Sadly, the storyline often felt too busy to me because it is, after all, a tall order to present a complete overview of the evolution of English language. For that reason I would have liked better consistency and clearer signposting within the storyline between changing characters and scenes. The actors often switched erratically between characters for no reason which was apparent to me, which detracted from my enjoyment, as I played catch up, trying to understand what was going on.
That being said, the opening scenes were riveting. The clever use of lighting, to convey a scorching sun blazing on field workers who hummed in perfect unison a labourer’s chant, was both mesmerising and truly haunting. I also enjoyed the Southern drawl spoken by the actors and thought that they displayed some strong acting. I really felt I was seeing post-slavery provincial life in the USA. Those characters were then plucked away, by happenstance, from their sunny homes in America, and their tempestuous boat ride to England was created through a mixture of music and movement.
There was some allusion to the hardships faced by the characters on moving to a place where people spoke many different languages, as well as to the complexities of race relations; ‘Colour is a funny thing’, each of them remarked, piquing interest. However, these ideas were not properly unpacked, which was disappointing given the intricacies of the topic and the potential for storytelling. Instead, the story veered towards various seemingly disjointed scenes, showing the audience the supposed evolution of the English language as a whole, rather than the characters’ experience of it. These lacked any real substance and, unlike the first few scenes, no longer involved the same characters, but an odd array of personas including at one point, Robert Burns. The reason for these scenes was often not clear. It felt as if someone was sitting next to me with a remote, flicking through channels whose only connection was a vague association with the English language.
Scenes where the characters spoke in today’s vernacular, filled with expressions like ‘LOL’ and talking in ‘banter’, fell flat to me. It felt that rather than panning over English language in random snippets through time, it would have been more interesting to continue to unpack the initial characters’ experience with changing diction through to the end. I’m still curious to know how their story turned out.
Author: Jahmar Ngozi
Director: Jahmar Ngozi
Booking until: This show has completed its current run