One of the most powerful points in John Hollingworth’s debut play is that, in 21st century Britain, it’s impossible just to ‘be’ Muslim. From shit-stirring, vote-chasing politicians to an ill-informed media stoking up prejudice as ‘patriotism’, extremism – without context or exploration – is the only language some people hear as they face a bleak present and an uncertain future.
This is something that Natalie – going out with liberal Muslim council member Kash – discovers when she converts to Islam on the eve of the Conservative Party Conference in a near-future Bradford. Her staunchly Tory mother, Lyn, is furious and, for different reasons, Kash isn’t any happier. The hijab she wears has become a symbol over which she quickly learns she has no control.
Hollingworth gives us a chorus of voices – a range of perspectives – as he explores the cultural and semantic battleground that being Muslim has come to represent. Kash’s daughter, Qadira, angrily rejects a society that treats her only with suspicion and judgement, excoriating her father for his determination to prove he is just as British as the likes of Natalie’s blinkered mother.
The play is populated by characters who take their corner and argue from it – from the well-tailored Tory politician who has turned his back on his Muslim heritage in order to fit in, to his younger female colleague whose faith has become an integral part of her public image. These archetypical figures act as Hollingworth’s prism into a multi-faceted situation.
They also drive a plot that doesn’t throw up many surprises. For the most part, the characters follow the trajectories you’d expect, with the dangers looming on the horizon arriving at their appointed time. And while the script gestures at white, middle-class Natalie’s faddishness – it was Buddhism before Islam – her ‘innocent eye’ role as Kash’s moral arbiter sometimes hits an awkward note.
But Hollingworth punctures the play’s well-meaning but sometimes over-earnest moments with some brilliant observational comedy. His ear for the quirky mundanity of everyday life – when properly deployed – lifts scenes up and whips them along. His writing is often sharp and genuinely funny. In the middle of a huge family showdown, Lyn (Jacqueline King) makes a comment about people who go on cruises that’s pure Victoria Wood.
And a strong cast helps the script along. Navin Chowdhry conveys well Kash’s political ambition, his faith in multiculturalism and his anxiety about which of these has really been dictating his choices. He’s particularly affecting opposite Salma Hoque’s stroppy, opinionated but deeply vulnerable Qadira. And as Natalie, Clare Calbraith’s shell-shocked reaction to events speaks volumes. The calm of the mosque and the solidarity she has so admired in female Muslim protestors are only a picture viewed with the luxury of distance.
Elsewhere, Asif Khan whizzes adeptly through an array of roles; and while Lyn’s awfulness is sometimes distractingly overwhelming, Jacqueline King’s comic timing ensures that her character’s nostril-flaring, twin-set brittleness is still entertaining. It sits well with the heightened tenor of director Indhu Rubasingham’s fast-moving production and Richard Kent and Oliver Fenwick spare, high-impact set and lighting designs, all of which help to keep the play light on its feet in even its heaviest moments.