There’s a chimerical quality to Naylah Ahmed’s play; there are moments where it feels unevenly stitched, a collision of things, that while individually intriguing and exciting, don’t always fit neatly together.
Mustafa, a devout Muslim man, is in prison for manslaughter. The play opens with his cell being searched and his prayer mat confiscated. In its early moments the play seems to be setting itself up as a piece of ‘issue’ theatre: it bears all the hallmarks, and it’s easy to imagine where this play, in other hands, may have ended up. But Ahmed soon upends this impression, her play revealing itself as something altogether more intriguing and unexpected. Mustafa, it seems, has been put in solitary confinement because strange things happen when he is around. At first the prison guards are happy to mark him out as a trouble maker, but it soon becomes evident that he’s the catalyst rather than the cause.
Mustafa is in prison because a boy died while under his care during what turns out to have been an exorcism ritual; he claims he was trying to free the boy from the grip of an evil spirit, a djinn, but the ritual failed, the boy died, and now the djinn seems to have acquired a new host in Mustafa. The idea of a malign, invisible force attaching itself to a man is one rich in metaphoric potential and the play acknowledges this without over-milking it.
Ahmed has written a contemporary supernatural thriller with a political edge and, though the play doesn’t quite fly, its willingness to tinker with genre and audience expectation is pleasing. At times it feels a bit like a British take on The Green Mile (without Tom Hanks’ permanently earnest expression or urinary tract issues) or like one of the more out-there episodes of HBO prison drama Oz (without Chris Meloni’s ubiquitous cock). But Ahmed is out to do more than just unnerve her audience, at times too much more. There are a couple of complicated subplots, one about female-on-male domestic violence, and another about Mustafa’s antagonistic relationship with his brother, Shabir (who is also, conveniently, his solicitor). These plot threads are intriguing – exploring ideas of masculinity and cultural identity both within prison and out in the wider world – but, as both concern events that take place beyond the prison walls, they require lengthy chunks of exposition in order to weave them into the fabric of the play, and this excess of explanation undermines the building sense of tension.
The performances are nicely balanced. There’s an endearingly paternal quality to the relationship between the older, experienced prison guard, played by Paul McClearly, and his younger, brasher colleague, played by Ryan Early. Munir Khairdin provides a calm central presence as the enigmatic, sensitive Mustafa; there’s a sense of quiet pathos to his performance which helps tame the more wayward aspects of the play, keeping the genie in its bottle.
Janet Steel’s production delivers the occasional tingle but is more concerned with the relationships between the four characters than with shocks and scares; indeed, for a play about an exorcism, there’s a surprising amount of humour on display. Colin Falconer’s caged and barred set emphasises the sense of confinement and isolation, with Mustafa’s cell swamped in blackness, figures half-glimpsed in the distance, adding to the production’s sense of a world off-kilter, a world in which dark things lurk.