Omid Djalili's subject matter ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous in this double-bill of Edinburgh Fringe successes in which he tries to have his baklava and eat it, and largely succeeds.
A Strange Bit Of History assembles a collage of sketches about the wave of millenarian fervour which swept Christianity and Islam in the mid-nineteenth century, culminating in the appearance in Persia of the prophet who proclaimed himself the Báb and whose teachings led ultimately to the foundation of the Bahá'í faith. Djalili portrays the official executioner of an unnamed Persian city, a seedy Egyptian camel-driver converted to the new faith, a knot of guests at an English garden party listening to an account of a scholar's meeting with the prophet, and a clutch of peripheral characters from Samuel Morse to a present-day New Age Mersey poet. The stage is bare apart from a pair of tablas on which Djalili periodically punctuates the action, and a rear screen on which a set of sometimes tenuously connected slides is projected.
Annabel Knight's script has not noticeably changed from the show's first outing in Edinburgh in 1993; its major shortcoming is that it conveniently assumes that just about a century's worth of prominent persons were alive at the same time, from pioneering balloonists to one or other of the Napoleons to Louis Blériot. Djalili's performance, however, has grown considerably more assured. From the self-importance and creeping doubts of the executioner to the fan-fluttering middle-aged coquetry of Lady Mary, he deftly encapsulates his characters; even when resorting to caricature, he generally ensures that these figures retain at least a kernel of dignity – even whilst, with no such reservations about himself, he shimmies around the stage in a rapturous belly-dance.
This sense of his own faint ridiculousness reaches full bloom in Short Fat Kebab-Shop Owner's Son, which is one of the autobiographical stand-up routines that have mushroomed over the last two or three Edinburgh Fringes. Djalili does not spare himself in his account of the image problems of growing up as an un-lanky, un-lithe Iranian Londoner; his dissection of various daft disco-dancing styles is a delight, and his memories of his over-protective mother haggling in McDonald's and running onstage at the end of a play to check that he is not really dead are mordantly affectionate.
He makes good use of his self-proclaimed status as an outsider; it allows him both to add bite to his "I'm a loser" material and to maintain a critical distance in his observation pieces, whether they deal with the Arabs for whom he used to act as chauffeur or the oh-so-English students he encountered at university, paradoxically, in Coleraine. A series of filmed segments, parodying a generic Orient Express spy-romance story, are only partially integrated into the overall routine, and his guide to fringe curtain-call techniques is a little Edinburgh-specific. Djalili is also noticeably less secure when appearing as himself, without a wholly fictional character to inhabit. But he generates more than enough chuckles to see him over these obstacles.
The pair of shows could have cancelled each other out in terms of mood, conveying a sense of Djalili as a performer sundecided as to which avenue to follow. Instead, by utilising the same skills to differing degrees and effects, they complement each other nicely.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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