Good journalists move heaven and Earth to avoid telephone interviews because they’re, invariably, significantly less personal than face-to-face. Zoom interviews, though an improvement on phones, have a similar issue, but when I spoke to Sri Lankan-Australian S.Shakthidharan (far better known as Shakthi), the man behind Counting & Cracking — a sprawling, epic stage performance landing at the Rep on August 19 — it didn’t matter that he was 'Down Under' and talking to me through a screen. It was one of those 21st Century tech-powered chinwags that was so interesting and engaging, it could have been taking place in a quiet corner of a favourite pub; Shakthi’s mellow Australian twang a settling, almost hypnotic tone. I have never left an interview more convinced I’ll be seeing the production in my life. Counting & Cracking follows the decades-long story of a family displaced from Sri Lanka and settling in Australia and, well, I’ll let him do the rest…
The reviews have been, across the board, spectacular. How much weight do you place on reviews?
It’s tough. You’ve got to put your soul on a plate and then people gobble it up — or don’t — and say what they think about it, you know? But that's the job. For me, personally, I don’t care as much about the reviews as I do about how something is received within the industry or within the community it represents. So Counting & Cracking is a story about a migrant family; it’s a story about love. It’s a story about trying to overcome the politics of division. So whenever a Sri Lankan sees it, and perhaps it helps them to heal their relationship with their homeland, or it helps any person who has had to leave their homeland, then it’s done its job. That’s what I care about. But look, it’s had an amazing impact with the Sri Lankan community and I was terrified that it wouldn’t. Also Irish people, South Africans, Jewish people — any story can be a universal story and this seems to be one that anybody can connect with.
And it’s a big show, right? I mean, in timeline terms and in cast numbers.
Oh, mate. I don’t know how it is in Birmingham but here in Australia there’s never really been a show of this size featuring a cast of people who look like Sri Lankans. A cast from six different countries, there’s six languages in the show, so I really cared that the reviews were good, more so than most shows, because I wanted to prove we could do it. It would have sucked if we screwed the show up because people would have said: “See? You shouldn’t have been that ambitious.”
Yeah I think Birmingham can relate on a number of levels. Brum is a city that has tales of immigration running through its veins so it’s perhaps a very good choice as the only English city to be showing Counting & Cracking.
That’s really good to hear. Sean Foley, the artistic director at The Rep, said the same so I’m really thrilled it’ll be showing there. It sounds perfect.
The show was ten years in the making. Is that... exhausting?
[Laughing] Well it wasn’t every day for ten years. There are some projects you do where you know you aren’t allowed to rush it. I did all these research interviews with Sri Lankans, both here in Australia and around the world, and they gave me a story of my homeland that was very different to what’s in the history books and the mass media. It was a very personal experience for them and they were being very vulnerable and open with me, so I felt the need to honour that. I couldn’t rush it. Researching the story revealed a lot about my own family history. My mum opened up a lot as we spoke and it became clear the show had... power. Well outside of my own family; a power within Sri Lankan immigrants that was far bigger than the show itself. The more we worked on it the more we realised that, and the more there was a transfer where I became, I don’t know… just sort of custodian of the production, you know? And what comes with something of that power is the need to make sure every single element is right. We could have done it sooner, quicker, but it deserved time to be the best that it could be. People were depending on that. It took four of the ten years just to cast! There’s an actor in it who’s 19 and there’s one who’s almost 90. There’s a character who needs to know how they speak Singalese in the rural parts of Sri Lanka and then there’s characters who speak Tamil as they would in the cities. There are so many complexities behind a show with 50 characters in it and once we realised that that was the case — realised it was a show of epicness — we realised it couldn’t be rushed.
Is it a show that works better in certain parts of the world?
I think it resonates best in western democracies at this point in history, particularly given Sri Lanka’s current plight, because Sri Lanka is kind of a cautionary tale. That country’s families, its cities, its businesses, they’re all so interwoven. If you walk down the street in Colombo there’s a church next to a mosque next to a temple. It wasn’t a divided country. But what happened was it became politically expedient to win elections by engaging the politics of division, creating divisions where there were no divisions before. When they won elections on the back of that, they didn’t believe it themselves, but they couldn’t rein in what they had started. And we see that in America now, we see it in the UK with some politicians, Australia too. So it’s a cautionary tale that insists we can’t take democracy for granted. It needs nurturing. And we need to condemn the politics of division when people try to play those tricks on us. And on a very personal level I think it relates to audiences in western democracies because these are cities built on the back of migration and many, many of us have a solidarity there. Unless we are indigenous to that place we have all come from elsewhere. And we have that in common — that’s a bond, and a beautiful one at that. Those elements are fundamental to how cities came to be, but are very rarely celebrated. There’s nothing that would make me more chuffed than to see Birmingham’s Irish and South Asians in the same building watching this.
You said in The Guardian, while speaking about Counting & Cracking, that “it’s less important to be right than it is to listen”. What did you mean by that?
[Shakthi pauses for thought] I come from a community that has had a three-decade civil war and you and I both live in a world now where social media reigns supreme. People become obsessed with saying what their version of events is or was. The more you see that on social media, the more those on that platform bicker. And the more I researched this, the more I realised that the stage is a place where many truths can gather — the arts is really the only place that can do that. A really good story just obliterates this idea that one of us has to be right. Instead, it suggests that what’s much more important is that we feel like we can present our most dearly held truths — because usually we just keep them to ourselves — and present them in all their complexity. Then, and this is key, we listen to someone else do the same. And that’s life and it’s way more important than which person was the most correct. And that’s what I’m trying to do with Sri Lankan history in this play but also, on a deeper level, I’m putting forward the stage as a space in which to allow many truths to meet and overlap.
How much of the show is fact and how much is fiction?
The way I talk about it is that every single thing in that play is true. Everything has happened to someone or is a real thing in the world. But the work as a whole is a fiction. It’s a fictional mosaic drawn from the real pictures of life. There’s a lot of my great grandfather in it and a lot of his relationship with my mother in it. Most of us don’t ever really unlock who our parents are, which is quite mind-boggling really. And this play is kind of about that — what it takes to learn and understand who your parents really are.
Did you manage that?
The play allowed me to, yeah. My mum never talked about Sri Lanka when I was growing up, and the process of making the play showed me that the pain within her from leaving Sri Lanka was so great that the only way she could deal with it was by burying it. But the only reason I was able to figure that out is because the play gave her space to heal that rift. She used the play to reconcile with the homeland and I saw that journey happening for her. Again, that contributed to what I was saying earlier: that this show has a power.
Was it cathartic to have those conversations with your mum?
Immensely so. I felt like I could understand what kind of power the arts can have in a very tangible way. It felt good to know what my job can do. It’s been really good for my personal relationship with my mum.
It feels almost like perhaps we all need a vehicle like yours, which might help our parents open up, maybe?
Yeah it’s tricky. It’s not like a conversation over brekkie. And it can never be one question, can it? It has to be a hundred. Do you know what I mean?
But a show or a story is an organic machine that can bundle up a hundred questions into one sitting. And a person can step through all of it and come out ready to talk about things that they had closed themselves off to before that. And with my mum, often it was actors asking her questions about her experiences as we developed the show. Perfectly innocent and relevant questions but ones that were deeply personal to her. And she would answer in a way that she would never answer to me. You can’t tell a stranger to shut up — and she wouldn’t anyway because the context was kind and the context was generous. And that distance allowed her to open up. She never revealed to me, for example, that she hid her mother’s ashes under her bed for 21 years because she couldn’t summon the courage to go back to Sri Lanka and leave them there.
That’s incredible. But… we don’t all have an epic stage production with which to unlock these things!
No of course! You’re completely right.
Did you learn anything along the way that might be applicable to anyone who wants to get to know someone better, but feels a certain barrier?
Don’t let them know you’re asking them questions. The best thing to do is to be having lots of food together. Food seems to be great for this. Doing something people love, where they’re most comfortable. That might be a round of golf for some, but for me it’s over food. Then it’s like a fishing line, isn’t it? Don’t go for the big questions straight up. You mentioned you have kids, right?
I don’t know maybe your mum might say: “You know how your eldest daughter does such and such? She got that from me.” And you can use that moment to say: “Oh you did that as a kid? Tell me more about that…” And then 20 questions later, when you’re on your fourth scone or whatever, you can bring out the big guns.
We don’t only eat scones here, Shakthi.
[Laughing] Oh man, I’m so sorry. A 45-minute interview and you didn’t once mention curry, and here I am making the scones stereotype right at the last minute…
'Counting & Cracking' is at The Rep, August 19 to 27. Tickets from £12.50
THE GREENFIELDS OF BRUM
Lov-er-ly Edgbaston is one of those areas no one quite knows where it starts and ends. Just a mile from the city centre it claims a fair few of Birmingham’s crown jewels as its own: from Edgbaston Cricket at the boundaries, to the University of Birmingham and the Botanical Gardens closer to its epicentre. It’s not a bad showpiece for all those sporting visitors, given it’s got the glorious Edgbaston Village to boast of, with a rich history and top notch Georgian architecture, and a brand-spanking new metro stop. The focal point is Greenfield Crescent, one of the oldest surviving Victorian crescents in the UK, the beautiful pedestrianised road at the heart of the Village and home to Birmingham's largest (and rather impressive) Edgbaston Artisan Market, now just over a year old and absolutely nailing it.
Doffing its cap to the Commonwealth Games, there’s a three-day special edition market between July 29 and 31 (Friday to Sunday), showcasing the wealth of handcrafted talent and culinary treats we have in this fine region. Smack-bang next to some already-brilliant food and drink venues in the Village, the market will host more than 60 independents between 10am and 6pm each day, offering all manner of handmade paraphernalia, from illustration to ceramics, as well as a farmers’ market supplying you with a full-on feast of bakes, charcuterie, pickles, cheese, pies. Name it, it’s probably there.
The bumper event is a shot in the arm to the usual market, offering live jazz and blues musicians playing between 11am and 5pm each day, a pop-up coffee bar and deli, a vintage ice cream van, and seating areas for a good people watch, where you can enjoy the Crescent in all its quintessentially English glory. Greenfield Crescent is possibly the most gorge street in Brum and, with the opening of Edgbaston Village Metro stop, it’s easily accessible from the city centre and beyond. Birmingham institutions like Pip's Hot Sauces, Rourke's and Brumhaus (sporting a new print for the occasion, above) will be there across the weekend — alongside some excellent new discoveries to support our ace independents.
Check all stallholders, and best travel routes, online
THE 'ALRIGHT BAB' BADGE GIVEAWAY
I've mentioned Brummie badasses, Revuie, before. They're the team of app geniuses who are revolutionising the reviewing process, with a commitment to genuine reviews and some clever tech to ensure it. They're like a Brum-made rival to a certain GIANT restaurant reviewing website that's long since seen its best days.
The way it works, and this is my simplified explanation, is that you can only review a venue while you're actually there. This cuts out all the, shall we say, gamesmanship that plagues other review aggregators. Reviewing is incredibly easy and, if you prefer not to write anything, you don't have to. Just take a photo or a video and leave an honest score out of 5 stars. That's it. Mega simple.
Now, as the number of Revuie users grows they're moving into 'momentum mode' with these ace new Alright Bab? badges, complete with a subtle nod to a certain iconic Brummie.
To win one all you have to do is post five reliable reviews — that's five reviews submitted at the venue. The first 200 people to do so, starting now, all win a 'money can't buy' badge. When all 200 have gone, they'll never be printed again.
You can review restaurants, pubs, bars, coffee shops, sandwich joints, takeaways, anywhere that sells food or drink, anywhere in the country, so five reviews can be done licketysplit!
With such an alliterative title, you’d think the 1963 Bristol Bus Boycott would be one of the first to spring to mind as a pivotal event in the UK’s civil rights history. Not so, says Roy Williams, co-writer of new musical, To The Streets! coming to a park near(ish) you in August: “History is littered with forgotten stories, especially black stories, which always enrages me. The more important they are, the angrier I become. The [BBB] protestors’ actions brought widespread attention to the problem of racism in Britain at the time. Their success brought a profound and positive sense of hope for the possibility of progress.” Get acquainted with this forgotten story that was a catalyst for change, through special performances (tickets, £15) taking place in August between Friday 19 and Sunday 28 at Handsworth Park (Birmingham), Windmill Hill (Coventry, University of Warwick Campus) and West Park (Wolverhampton); all part of the Birmingham 2022 Festival. Inspired by the momentous BBB, To The Streets!, produced by China Plate and Birmingham Hippodrome, follows the story of an idealistic youth worker, Paul, who campaigns for equality in Bristol. Tensions are running high as the Omnibus Company refuses to employ Black or Asian drivers or conductors, forcing Paul into action. He's joined by Lorraine, a teenager newly arrived from Jamaica, who joins the fight, finds her voice and becomes part of a movement that changes history. This musical features some of the best feel-good music for outdoor performance: ska, calypso and rock ‘n’ roll (pray bearable sunshine), joyfully celebrating allyship in the context of the civil rights fight. Bookings now open for Birmingham or Wolverhampton, and Cov.
RISKY DISCO DAYTIMERS
Us Brummies seem to have developed a reputation as having a penchant for snooping. Those folks at Birmingham 2022 Festival have got another room for you to have a look-see into, this time from artist Dawinder Bansal. Recently featured on BBC2’s Back in Time for Birmingham, three-room installation, Jambo Cinema, unveils Dawinder's 1980s culture-clashing world within a migrant family. Exploring the jeopardy and joy of being a South Asian teen in 1980s Wolverhampton, the installation is in Mailbox Birmingham from Thursday July 28 to Saturday 20 August. With a recreation of her childhood bedroom, it’s an immersive setting in which to see Dawinder's video, Asians Don’t Kiss (but we know how to make babies), exploring a thrilling, sometimes dark, history of ‘daytimer’ events – a phenomenon of daylight discos, avoiding night-time racist attacks and curfew pressures – that many South Asian girls attended in secret. Amazingly, this same culture crossover nurtured the birth of British bhangra music. The bedroom is plastered with unseen daytimer promotional posters, period features that rival the Stranger Things set and, like many of the Festival's commissions, this is an intriguing exploration of the fusion of music and cultures, highlighting migrant stories that are the roots of multi-cultural, modern Britishness. With an insight into forbidden activities – from attending the daytimers and ‘hands-off’ culture, to Dawinder’s father’s piracy at Bansal Electrical, renting Bollywood VHS tapes – you can see the intimate world of one family, alongside the wider social events and birth of bhangra. Visit Jambo Cinema 12pm to 7pm daily, from July 28 to August 20.
BRUM’S BEST VALUE MICHELIN-STARRED MEAL?
Carters of Moseley has launched a four-course, £65 lunch menu that includes what is more like six servings (little extras that aren’t so little) and, perhaps most importantly, none of them are makeweights. All killer, no filler. “We know everyone is feeling the pinch and hopefully this reflects that,” says chef and co-owner, Brad Carter. “There’s a lot of doom and gloom just now and hopefully this little bit of joy is still achievable for some. Or maybe it’s what a few Brummies have been waiting for to get them through the door.”
You won’t be disappointed when you’re walking the other way through it. First up is the most Brad Carter of Brad Carter dishes, and it doesn’t even count toward your four courses: a fried chicken thigh (above) that was three lockdown months in the making. “Me and Holly had to eat it every night for 90 days straight,” says Brad, serving it with a laugh. During those days indoors, Brad read a PhD in batter and applied his learnings to this spectacularly refined take on KFC, the flour and seasoning recipe for which he has genuinely kept a secret from even his trusted cooking colleagues. “I still make every one of these that goes out,” his cheeky smile now beaming. The thigh is served with a preposterous dipping jelly made from the bones of the chicken, with a soy sauce made by a family in Japan, in cedarwood barrels, for seventeen generations. The soy takes five years to make and is one of only a handful of ingredients Carters import, alongside coffee, wine, saké and chocolate — their allotment now providing 15% of all ingredients and the rest coming from as close to home as possible.
Next up is a tomato from Westlands in Evesham, filled with steamed Cornish crab, served in a cold Morecambe shrimp broth. It’s the lightest, summeriest dish of the meal. It’s delicate but no less of a showstopper for it, the tomato being of the sweet San Morzano variety, the type used for pizza sauce in Italy. The tomato is marinated in tomato essence made by the team last summer season, and that crab is so fresh it’s like you fished it yourself.
After bread and butter — Carters style — comes Birmingham Soup (above). Brad makes monthly visits to the Library of Birmingham to trawl old cookery books, and on one such visit he stumbled across a recipe from 1793, when Matthew Boulton would keep his workforce fuelled with a hearty soup. Taking that dish and refining, probably sixteen times over, it’s reborn in Moseley, the bread replaced by a crunchy potato-ey tribute to the Library’s iconic façade. It’s a very sustainable dish, the beefy broth made from the trimmings leftover when Carters buy a whole dairy cow, the meat braised under pressure for seven hours. An oil infused with the waste charcoal (ridiculous, right?) then adds a real, smoky thwack. It tastes like liquid grilled steak, I shit you not.
The main event was six months in the making. Brad’s dry-aged barbecue duck is a joy-inducing sharer that ensures you leave feeling like you’ve bagged value for money. The dish started out with Brad following Chinese cooking methods, but it wasn’t coming out right. 'Old school roasting methods' weren’t cutting it either, so Brad went back to one of his first loves: barbecuing. “The fattines of duck holds the smoke brilliantly so we went Texas barbecue style, without the spice.” They smoke the duck over wood and let it rest, then finish it again on the barbecue where “the skin almost vac-pacs to the breast, giving it the perfect crisp.” It’s then glazed with Moseley honey and a splash of the aforementioned soy.
To finish, a mousse dessert with Brad’s trademark smiley face arrives with tiny cut Lichfield strawbs. Looking to avoid importing vanilla, that flavour in the mousse and the sponge it sits upon is meadowsweet, a pollen that tastes of honey and vanilla. You can see the dish over on their Instagram.
It’s a helluva meal and you’ll know you’ve been to Carters as you leave. “I can’t have people leaving feeling like they’ve eaten nothing more than fresh air and dust,” he says. Bloody hell, Brad, job done.
Carters’ four (and more) course lunch for £65 is served Fridays and Saturdays. Vegetarian options are available. Book
The Shakespeare First Folio, dating back to 1623, is the centrepiece of a new exhibition on the third floor of the Library of Birmingham, from tomorrow (July 22). Free —
I don't know this for a fact but presumably this screening of Brum rock movie King Rocker will be one of your last chances to catch it on the big screen. —
Here's the Queen's Baton Relay Route if you fancy having a gawp. —
“Is it appropriate to dress up statues?” is one of the most Birmingham of public debate titles ever. July 27, 6pm, at Birmingham & Midland Institute. Free but you'll need to register. —
There will be no issue of I Choose Birmingham next Thursday because I'll be on holiday. Or, 'being a parent in a different country' as some of us like to call it.
WORDS: Tom Cullen, Claire Hawkins
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