As the audience settle in along three sides of the stage at the Bush Theatre, 16 year-old Leila (Ashna Rabheru) pores over her artwork on the floor of the living room, snuggled in pyjamas and a fleecy dressing gown. Her grandmother, Nanoo (Renu Brindle), tidies the house, occasionally beseeching her to hurry up and get ready for school. Designer Liz Whitbread has created a home that demonstrates restricted financial circumstances alongside frugality borne of religious choice. It is small and basic but homely: a small kitchenette is sunk into the corner of the set closest to the audience, a dining room table pushed against the wall at the back of the room.
Leila is frustrated and anxious. Initially this would appear to be a consequence of her grandmother’s strict rules, but it becomes obvious that they are both awaiting the delayed arrival of Leila’s mother, Aleena (Avita Jay). She has been away for a while and the audience is led to suspect she has been in prison. Aleena then bursts onto the stage in a frenzy of nervous energy, singing loudly and claiming her freedom. Immediately there are clashes about how Leila is being raised and the tension amongst the group is palpable.
Favour is a solidly well-written play that, like an onion, slowly releases its layers, to reveal nuggets of truth one at a time. As the hypocrisies of a community that purports to value family over anything else are revealed, it becomes apparent that no one is as they seem. Leila is the exception who (diagnosed with anxiety and waking screaming in the night) is the pawn in the middle. In an outstanding performance by Rabheru, she simultaneously captures the normal frustrations of a modern teenager alongside her heart-wrenching fragility. She wants to be with her mother but she is scared of her. Like any child, she longs for stability: she is anxious about change.
The dexterity of the play initially encourages the audience to judge Aleena simply as an addict, criticising her for her lack of realistic child-rearing goals. By the end, we are forced to acknowledge the duplicitous circumstances that put her in prison and face the harsh truth about the damage women with such experiences suffer as they attempt to rebuild their lives on release.
Light relief comes in the shape of Fozia (Rina Fatania) who enters and exits the stage in a blaze of pretension and prejudice, a character that resonates with many in the audience. She delivers lines that are so opinionated and self-delusional the audience bursts into communal laughter born of experience. The genius of Fozia is that her own self-denial conversely illustrates the suffocating community that this family is stuck in with. She speaks and moves to a different rhythm from the rest of the cast to punctuate the hypocrisy, and it works well.
Good performances are delivered from all and I like the ending: it’s realistic, no Disney-style fantasy here but I feel there is a spark missing. Jay is an accomplished performer who sings and dances beautifully and yet it is Fatania as Fozia that steals the show. I understand that Aleena needs to demonstrate the toxic effects of the environment she has just left, but I think a little more subtlety and nuance in her performance would raise this production to the next level.
Written by: Ambreen Razia
Directed by: Róisín McBrinn and Sophie Dillon Moniram
Co-commissioned by Bush Theatre and Clean Break
Favour plays at Bush Theatre until 6 August. Further information and bookings can be found here.