COMEDY, BRUTALITY, UNCERTAINTY IN A BYGONE SALFORD
There is a telling moment at the end of Sam Yates’ production of Ayub Khan Din’s portrait of a Pakistani Muslim family in ‘70s Salford. Abdul, the eldest son, after a series of tragicomic brawls and conflicts, resolves to take over control from the bullying patriarch, defend his English mother and ensure that none of his siblings need marry by order or live under duress. Then over the cramped, bricky railside terrace (brilliantly realized by Tom Scutt) we hear an aeroplane. Bringing in another generation of migrants, to face the same challenges and confusions.
The play, first staged by Tamasha and subsequently a West End hit and film, is largely autobiographical: and here Khan Din himself plays the role of “George” the tyrannical father, creating alarming – often violent – authenticity with roars of “Why I tell you my business, Mrs?” at his English-born wife Ella. She is Jane Horrocks, returning to the stage with a drop-dead, pitch-perfect portrayal of long-suffering pragmatism and steely, competent maternal backbone. One son (like the author) has run off to be a hairdresser and is deemed dead (“He’s not dead, he’s in Eccles!” snaps Ella). To the rest the message is “I am your father! I don’t have to listen! You should show respect!”. Despite the cowed obedience of his children working in the family chip-shop and obeying at home, he gets nastier still when roused by his sons’ unwillingness to be married off, assaulting Ella with“Next time you talk to me like that I kill you and burn all your bastard family while you sleep!”.
It is a more uncompromising performance than anyone not directly, physically and authorially involved would dare, but Ayub Khan Din manages to infuse it with glimpses of insecurity and desperation. He is struggling for the status of what he thinks is a proper Muslim father, while loving an English wife and living in a suspicious white neighbourhood; on top of which there is the cheerfully jelloid Auntie Annie, forever off to lay out another corpse, and a pack of children bored with mosque, indifferent to Pakistan, feeling English. George is isolated.
The young cast are a joy, with lovely ensemble rowdiness: Abdul the sober worrier (Amit Shah), Maneer (Darren Kuppan) who wants to be a good Muslim, rebellious Tariq (Ashley Kumar), Saleem the art student whose father still thinks he’s doing engineering at college, and a wonderful blinking, troubled performance by Michael Karim as Sajit, the one they forgot to circumcise until his teens, who refuses to emerge from his parka hood and hides from rows in the coalshed. Among them dances Meenah (Taj Atwal) the only daughter, larkily tomboy, disgusted by being forced into a sari for the visit of the richer Shahs. That scene is a classic of social embarrassment, brilliantly done by all and culminating inevitably in the horror of Saleem’s art project. But beneath all the comedy throbs the reality: that this family can’t last in its present form, and must either revert to something alien, ancient and un-English, or fracture and lose the precious bits: the love which however erratically flows between them.
It would be a shame to take it as mere social history, a Pakistani Taste of Honey. There are modern parallels and contrasts. Much of George’s panic is fed by news bulletins about the Indo-Pakistan conflict and massacres; today plenty of immigrant communities endure similar tortures from the nightly news. Reflect too that in the mid-90s few would foresee that rather than flowering into English freedoms, too many British Muslims clench, close in, radicalize. When George roars that his daughter wears skirts “like a prostitute” Ella exasperatedly says “It’s her school uniform!”. Never would they have foreseen the burqa on the streets, the niqab defiance in British schools. Or the honour killings. Or the grooming scandals fed on contempt for white girls. East is East feels , dammit, almost cosy now.
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