Pros: A brilliant opening premise. Complex and interesting central characters.
Cons: Lays it on a bit thick towards the end.
As Yusuf might say, things are “messed up” in Pat’s living room. There’s a heap of discarded bouquets in one corner, a cricket bat in another, newspaper cuttings all over the place and, in the middle of everything Yusuf himself, gagged and bound to a chair.
Once Yusuf comes to, Pat serves him soup and removes the gag. They then try to make sense of each other; a white, middle-aged, middle class teacher-turned-hostage-taker and a young British Muslim mistaken for an Islamist on what is only his fifth day of wearing Islamic dress.
Joan Blackham and Adam Karim bring both characters beautifully to life, although it might be said that Blackham has more to work with. Pat is truculent and evasive, displaying an Islamophobia that is shameless yet somewhat lacking conviction. Yusuf is sweet, self-aware and disarmingly honest, alternating between justified outrage and brilliant gallows humour. He is also unexpectedly articulate, given his situation, countering Pat’s mulish support for drone strikes with impassioned arguments about the human reality of “collateral damage”.
Holly arrives in the second act, causing Pat to lock Yusuf in the cellar. Pat and Holly should be on the same side; they’ve both lost a loved one to the war on terror. But increasingly it seems like Pat and Yusuf have more in common. Both have forced themselves to look at the horrors of Syria and Afghanistan, and both have been moved to do something. Their sympathies may lie in different directions but they share feelings of horror, disgust and a compulsion to act locally on a global problem. After the occasional comedy of the first act, the tragedy grows. There is a sense that given a bit more time in Pat’s living room this pair could have found common ground, could perhaps have helped each other.
This odd domestic drama is intercut with sounds, images and voices from the notional battlefield. The back wall becomes a screen onto which are projected excerpts of letters from a British soldier in Afghanistan and text exchanges between Pat and her far-right virtual buddies. It’s a visual representation of the confusing clutter in Pat’s head; guilt-inducing phrases, pejorative language, conflicting ideas. If anyone is being radicalised online it’s not Yusuf but Pat.
The slightly histrionic second act, with its tiresome repetition of the name Pat, comes to an abrupt and horrifying end. If the play’s message at the interval is that drone strikes and preemptive action are cruel and unjustifiable, its messages at curtain call seem to be that the brown guy always loses (no matter how innocent), that news really can be fake, and that history is indeed written by the victors.
Naylah Ahmed has packed this play with ideas not just about the clash of civilizations but about motherhood, guilt, teaching and more. What really resonates, though, is the interaction between Pat and Yusuf; hostile but sometimes tender, confrontational yet inquisitive. And in weedy, wheezing, self-deprecating Yusuf she has created a tragic hero for our time.
Author: Naylah Ahmed
Director: Helena Bell
Producer: Kali Theatre
Video Design: Daniel Denton
Sound Design: Chris Drohan
Playing Until: 29 April 2017
Box Office: 020 7503 1646
Booking Link: https://www.arcolatheatre.com/visit/booking