Theatre review: Disconnect

Royal Court, London

Call centres are the bane of all our lives: only yesterday I heard a remote Filipino voice trying to persuade me of the virtues of domestic insulation. But Anupama Chandrasekhar's play looks at the subject from the viewpoint of the pressurised operatives. And, like the same author's Free Outgoing which dealt with the battle between technology and tradition in modern India, it offers an intriguing, informative account of the realities of sub-continental life.

The setting is a Chennai call centre. Its mission, however, is not to sell but to collect credit card debts on behalf of a Buffalo-based company. Most of the action takes place on the Illinois floor where three young Indians, under the eye of an ageing supervisor, harass and cajole outstanding debtors. The team's task is to raise half a million dollars from Illinois in three months. But the main focus is on the star collector, Ross, who becomes ruinously fixated with a debt-ridden Springfield librarian.

Chandrasekhar clearly shows how the callers and their "marks" are both victims of a fantasy-world. The spendthrift Americans are part of a crazy consumer culture. But the young Indians, working 10-hour night shifts in a building next to a rubbish dump, are also subject to corrupting dreams. Ross, adopting a fake American accent, imagines himself romantically closer to a distant debtor than to Vidya who works at the next desk. Vidya's own identity merges with that of her assumed persona of a white, blonde caller named Vicki. Even the supervisor, whose job is on the line, kids himself that by getting Americans out of debt the call centre is contributing to the global economy. But, while I can't fault the play's social accuracy, it needs a stronger narrative dynamic. Given the echoes of Glengarry Glen Ross, I wish Chandrasekhar had taken a leaf out of Mamet's book and made more of the strains within the group and the drive to reach the apparently impossible target.

Indhu Rubasingham's Theatre Upstairs production blends destructive hopes and clinical efficiency, embodied by John Napier's design. The acting is also high-class. Nikesh Patel, in his professional debut, displays astonishing assurance as the glib-tongued Ross who fatally imagines himself an adoptive Chicagoan. Ayesha Darker also touchingly conveys the identity crisis of the victimised Vidya. Chandrasekhar gives us an insider's portrait of modern India and a fresh, poignant meaning to the insidious idea of the American dream.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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