My Brother’s Keeper opens with refugee brothers Aman (Tapiwa Mugweni) and Hassan (Tito Williams) arriving by bus in an unidentified (at least for the first half) British seaside town. The youngest of the two, Aman, sprints off to try a roller coaster, whilst Hassan poetically and rhythmically addresses the audience in pidgin English, reinforcing his loving bond and responsibility for his younger brother as they are scattered, like seeds, into this new community.
Designer Amanda Ramasawmy has created a boulder-encased set in a grey reminiscent of out of season seaside towns, with ceiling-hung coloured fluorescent lighting that both buzzes and switches colour to reflect changes in mood and location. The economy in such minimalism typifies the poverty found in many such coastal locations: once the preferred choice of the holidaying public, now abandoned and lost, as holiday-makers seek more exotic climes.
Having made a connection with Aidan (Oscar Adams), the brothers end up living in his father’s (Philip Wright) struggling hotel but are met with hostility from locals as they grapple to settle into their new home. Friend of the family, Linton (Peter Eastland), a budding political activist, epitomises the conflicting emotions of hostility shown to the strangers whilst developing a connection with Hassan, a talented runner.
There is much to like about this production, not least the accomplished acting that shines throughout from all on stage. Highly relevant and topical, the narrative delivers an achingly accurate picture of the dichotomy of a run-down British town; beloved by artists and home to a Turner gallery that is irrelevant, and peripheral to locals who live in hardship and deprivation. The fluidity and charm of the love shown between the two brothers is natural and heart-warming although the interactions between the English characters by contrast can feel clunky. The xenophobia, whilst essential, feels anachronistic and the fixed narrative undermines the glimpses of fluidity.
This is Ali’s debut as a playwright and he has chosen to set the action in March 2015 in the run up to the UK general election. I understand that: the resulting unexpected majority victory for the Conservative party led to the Brexit referendum the following year. No more than an ill thought through and throwaway manifesto promise by an outgoing prime minister who had not expected to win a majority, it had horrific and destabilising consequences that represented the frustration and misunderstanding of much of the public at the time. However, that theme is mixed up with other contemporary and pertinent issues, such as the global refugee crisis, and I think the script would be better served by keeping the plot threads to a minimum. The human story of the brothers and the fragility of their English hosts, set as they are in a troubled alliance, is more than enough to carry this play.
A similar confusion lies in the set: having designed an unembellished setting, various props are brought on and off to represent the hotel and copious sweeping takes place. Honestly, the narrative and acting is sufficient, everything else is surplus to requirement.
Nonetheless this is a piece that zips along and does not feel anything like its length of two hours. A certain expectation for the ending is set up in the first half, which looks like it could include horrific violence, but mercifully the audience are completely wrong footed as a more assured, nuanced but realistic conclusion takes place. The result is a moving and clever display of the universality of human emotions that should bind us together.
Written by: Mahad Ali
Directed by: Robert Awosusi
Produced by: Layla Madanat and Mahad Ali
Design by: Amanda Ramasawmy
My Brother’s Keeper plays at Theatre503 until 4 March 2023. Further information and bookings can be found here.
You can find out more about the play and its writer in our recent interview with Mahad Ali here.