Thursday 13 September 2007

Daring Pairing #1 - Hampstead Theatre

The first of the Hampstead Theatre’s Daring Pairings proper, after the two company curated nights (Talawa and Paines Plough), sees Amy Rosenthal teamed up with Cosh Omar. The pair were introduced six weeks ago, spent a couple of days brainstorming ideas for a script, which was then written in two weeks and developed over the following month. The result is Thank God it’s Friday!, a very funny Rom-Com of deferred gratification built on themes of racial/religious identity.

When writers collaborate it is always interesting to try to guess which writer wrote what bit. Omar and Rosenthal appear to have made the job slightly easier by taking it in turns with the scenes, and each offering work characteristic of their previous output. Of course, I could be doing both writers a grave injustice and Omar may have proved as adept at writing Jewish family comedy as Rosenthal has at heavily researching and depicting the Turkish Cypriot community around Dalston. But probably not. The big draw here is that Rosenthal and Omar are both writers whose previous work has drawn heavily on their backgrounds - Rosenthal’s evident love of Jewish culture and humour, and Omar’s engagement with the conflicted issues surrounding Turkishness, Islam and Britishness ( Omar - Battle of Green Lanes: Shuttleworth, Billington; Rosenthal - Sitting Pretty: Shuttleworth, Gardner '99, Gardner '05) - and that there is, at the very least, a hint of mutual antipathy between their respective camps. Given the circumstances, a play which at least touched on the divisions between Islam and Judaism within Britain, within North London even, was almost inevitable. What is more unexpected is how well the pair’s writing styles complement each other. With single authored plays, there is always that nagging doubt, except in the rarest of cases, that one side has never been given quite the full intellectual backing and forceful arguments it deserves - a sense that someone has been set up as a straw target for the playwright to prove wrong.

The play works as a pair of parallel narratives: on one side, Rachel, a determinedly single 34-year-old history teacher (perfectly captured by Susannah Wise), lives with her aging father Sam, who has started to suffer from panic attacks. On the other, John and Jan are arranging a dinner party to set Rachel up with a lawyer friend of Jan’s. Their progress impeded by the arrival of John’s friend from school Zeki, a Turkish Cypriot rockabilly, and Jan’s planned meeting with Muslim human rights lawyer Aiyse.

Given the nature of the timescale involved in its creation, it is probably fair to note that the piece isn’t yet perfect. That said, it is quite remarkable just how good it already is. Rosenthal and Omar have chosen their themes astutely and the way that they resonate across the two strands goes a long way beyond simple cohesion. Rachel’s vintage dresses from the Forties, which she wears much to her father’s irritation - “The Forties weren’t a great time for Jews, you know” - is mirrored by Zeki’s fascination with all things Fifties: Elvis, rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly; while her father Sam’s fear of persecution, seeing anti-Semitism everywhere, is mirrored by Zeki and Aiyse’s experiences as Muslims in post 9/11 and 7/7 Britain.

If there is a weak link it is in John’s increasingly bigoted girlfriend Jan who over the course of an evening is increasingly revealed to be largely intolerant of Muslims, while casually dropping in a few slurs against the Jews for good measure. Of course bigots exist, but it seems improbable that the mild and unflappable John would have stayed with one for so long or not noticed her changing perspective hitherto. As a character, her position in the play’s structure would have been infinitely more interesting if, when confronted with a lengthy and reasoned feminist argument for the Hijab, she had had any comeback beyond bluster. Too often Jan was allowed to slip into a caricature of an unlikeable, ignorant racist, when in fact there are some perfectly intelligent questions about what precisely atheists do stand for in the face of relativist arguments on one hand and increasing religious fundamentalism on the other. However, this is a small gripe and overall it is to be hoped that the play will be developed further and polished a bit and given a full staging in due course. It is an intelligent addition to the growing corpus of plays examining the fissures in multicultural Britain, and beyond that is frequently extraordinarily funny.

In addition to this full length play, following the interval, there was a chance to see 1 in 5 by Penelope Skinner. A short twenty-minute piece from the theatre’s StartNight initiative (I think - email me if I’m wrong on the details) presented as a fully-staged work in progress.

It is one of those plays that will have theatre traditionalists rolling their eyes and groaning, coming as it does from that post-Crave school of plays-for-unnamed-voices (although, thinking about it, isn’t Crave just an Under Milk Wood for depressed postmodernists? - No, Andrew. Stop being silly). These particular voices, amalgamate and loop back and forth through time to tell the story of a boy meeting a girl on Euston station, a binge-drinker made pregnant by her boss and an abusive relationship between husband and wife. As the details mount up it becomes apparent that the girl met by the boy is (possibly) the product of the drunken union of boss and binge-drunk, who marry to become the violent relationship. The narrative fragments are interspersed with the sorts of statistics that newspapers publish when reprinting the headline-grabbing press releases of spurious surveys commissioned by corporate PR firms as a way to keep their client's name in the press (cf. this one in today’s Times).

As a piece of writing it is fine and accomplished, boasting some excellent jokes and one-liners, along with a neat way of having the overlapping speeches resolve themselves into interventions across one another that nail a subtext or provide a punchline with one speaker finishing another’s sentence (kind of Two Ronnies style, but funnier). If the play is to be developed further, it could usefully play up how the store set by this sort of statistical barrage affects the behaviours of the piece’s protagonists at a more fundamental level. At the moment it feels slightly like the myriad elements haven’t quite finished meshing together. Similarly, it would be nice if the piece developed its already-present outward-looking aspect more. At the moment it runs the risk of wasting its inventiveness on a piece which doesn’t quite transcend the personal stories to a level where these really speak to the audience. That said, it is hard to envisage the piece gaining greatly from getting too much longer. But it is clearly the work of a writer blessed with acute theatrical thinking and I look forward to Ms Skinner’s next work.

Additional praise is due to director Michael Longhurst and his excellent cast of young actors (Simon Darwen, Sian Hutchinson, James Kermack, Alison O’Donnell and Gary Shelford - not a weak link between them). Longhurst displays a real facility for staging what must have looked like bewildering slabs of text on the page in a clear-sighted, witty and theatrical fashion. I can think of established directors with far longer CVs who would have consigned the whole thing to a turgid sat-down slog without a hint of the evident spark on show here.

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