Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, London SE1
Opened 2 February, 2009

Poor Caryl Churchill: now her rapid-response playlet about Gaza is being trumped even within the building of the Royal Court, where it opens next week. In the published text of Alia Bano’s Shades, romantic and ideological tensions simmer around the staging of a fashion show in aid of a West Bank-related charity; naturally, this has now become Gaza. But the central subject here is British Muslim identity in its various – yes – shades.
Sabrina, a largely secular Muslim, finds to her surprise that she is attracted by the more devout “brother” Reza; his courtesy and consideration impress her, and since these characteristics are to him an integral part of the Islamic way of life, she begins to re-evaluate her own relationship with the religion. Sabrina’s flatmate Zain is constrained by Islam’s intolerance of homosexuality, so that he is out only to her and his boyfriend Mark; Reza’s best friend Ali is basically an Iago who, having failed to seduce Sabrina himself, sets out to poison their relationship.
Bano, whose first fully staged play this is, has a great ear for natural speech idioms and sharp turns of phrase: Sabrina in an early scene disparages Ali to Zain as “the haram police”, and later Reza catches the others out by deadpanning that the fashion show should include models “walking down the catwalk in the latest jilbabs… they’ll get to flaunt their ankles.” Despite the published text specifying the ethnic origins of various characters (Pakistani, Pathan or Bengali), there is no question of their being at all detached from contemporary Britain, or of Britishness and Islam being separate images superimposed upon one another for dramatic purposes; indeed, Reza and Sabrina share a thoughtful exchange on the way the two fit together.
This is rather the problem: the “thoughtful exchanges” are too baldly set up, and the drama gets put on hold as characters debate various issues of observance, assimilation etc. The first-act closing image, in which Sabrina experimentally dons a hijab, is one of a handful of excessively contrived moments. Director Nina Raine uses a catwalk-style stage, but makes no use of the traverse arrangement in terms of audience self-consciousness. Steph Street as Sabrina and Navin Chowdhry as Zain head a strong cast in a production where the assurance and intelligence of the voices just win out over a rather clunky overall construction.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

Return to index of reviews for the year 2009

Return to master reviews index

Return to main theatre page

Return to Shutters homepage