EAST IS EAST, IN EAST ANGLIA
Shamser Sinha – who is on the National Theatre Connections project – relished the idea of writing a play about a South-Asian working-class family in England today which didn’t involve forced marriage, honour killings or the temptations of teenage terrorism. Nor does it major on racism, though like a troublesome ache that always runs under such lives: the sensitive son Faisal, who dreams of stars and the universe and reads St-Exupery’s The Little Prince, gets punched at school. But then the problem is actually aggravated by his amiable but slightly muttonheaded Dad Amjad the cab driver, who nags at him not to be girly but punch back. And that is interracially relatable if anything is. Indeed mostly we could be in any working-class drama of the last seventy years, in a good way. Though as Amjad ruefully says, whenever a passenger gets into his cab, he is “for them the only Pakistani in town”, so he must always be professional, a credit to his race. And that’s a burden.
Rachana Jadhav’s set, artfully tour-able for the play’s 15 next venues all the way to Guildford, has a car door, a section of cab office and some nicely sketched domesticity. In the first half Tiran Aakel as Amjad and Freny Nina Pavri as Rabla are talking about the cab business (here in the East we have, it seems, the lowest fares in England) . They hope to buy their own car. Yasmin, still a child, and teenage Faisal wander in and out. Underlying it all is a quiet grief, and the parents’ decision whether to have another baby after losing their infant Ruksana.
They are an engrossing, finely drawn pair: Amjad is earthier, practical, stubborn, beautifully drawn; hypnotically interesting though is his far more educated wife, with a Masters’ in Eonomics but no chance of a graduate job:“Your name is not Brown but your face is!” observes her husband.
Pavri is an Indian classical musician, with a dancer’s grace and soulful eye; she opens the show with a mesmeric solo raga and in the second half plays tabla, mirroring the heartbeat of emotion and tragedy. Her practicality is, however, in actually greater than her husband’s. The frustration of his accounting, and his stubbornness in wasting time chasing one bilked fare rather than earning four more , does not help the nailbiting quest to buy the car. She is also more deeply religious, believing utterly that “to Allah we belong” and that ill-deeds to anyone are a sin against the universe. At the end of the first act, though, she gives up and wants a separation. Amjad is poleaxed – “Nobody gets divorced! Who does these things? I don’t beat you…”.
The second act sees the family some time later; she having moved away into a hippyish life and social work with prisoners, he left alone with Guriot Dhaliwal’s patient Yasmin trying to make him eat better. Faisal is desperate to leave the cabbing treadmill and take up an unpaid internship in his beloved astrophysics. The play is woven through with moments when, framed in the car window, we see and hear infuriating clients: the girl without enough money saying no, she can’t ask her Dad for another tenner when she gets home, and being let off by Amjad. Others ask endless samey questions (“How long is your shift, when do you get off?”) and the equally endless “Where are you from? No, really from?” which brown faces in polite customer-facing jobs get used to. The author’s researches among cab drivers certainly pay off.
But at the same time there is friction between the siblings: Amjad promised the price of the Skoda between them: if Faisal gets it all he can follow his dream, if Yasmin does she might afford to stand for the Council and remedy some (rather obscurely and too glancingly explained) injustices in the local licensing trade.
I stayed engrossed, though frustrated at times by those small un-clarities, and by Faisal being given a really difficult breakdown to negotiate: the young performer badly needs to give it more changes of tone, a slower pace and better articulation, in order to take us all the way with him. But that’s an unfair quibble because I saw it right at the start of the run; director Sameena Hussain will have sorted that out by now.
And I’m glad I saw it: all four characters stay with me a day later, Aakel and Pavri as the parents in particular. In one of the deft doublings Aakel becomes a grumpy, dim, slightly threatening white passenger and then – in the eyes of his overstressed son at the wheel – suddenly mutates into his dead father. That is a properly alarming coup de theatre.
easternangles.co.uk for tour details to 5 November
box office 01473 211498 (Monday – Friday: 10am – 2pm)
rating 3 and a gallant-tour mouse because few others cover as much ground: