Writer/director Umar Butt’s Alex & Eliza is a very personal tale of family, based on the life of his grandparents. By turns funny, charming and moving, it deftly balances humour with an often tragic story that spans the personal and political.
Butt, who also stars, is a young Glaswegian Muslim, generally content with life, though chafing against the constraints of his religious family and wanting to pursue a career in the arts. When his home-loving, devout grandmother comes to stay when his parents are out of town (the first time, to his knowledge, she has left her village in rural Pakistan), he’s astonished to find she is an accomplished musician – and more shocked still when she reveals the details of a remarkable life played out against the backdrop of political upheaval and personal tragedy.
It’s a powerful story, simply but beautifully told. While not shying away from the horrors of his grandmother’s history – which include losing her home and her father during the Partition, and having to reinvent herself to hide her white Christian heritage – Butt handles it with an admirable lightness of touch that includes some witty lines, crowd-pleasing pop culture references and well-placed fourth wall breaking.
A strong cast handles multiple roles well (some questionable accents aside). Seweryna Dudzińska brings a vividness to the young Eliza that matures to the almost ethereal serenity of an old woman who has seen too much but found joy in the simple but significant pleasures of family life, while Danny Charles is sympathetic both as her father, and as Butt’s hard-drinking but amiable friend, whose easy-going banter hides secrets of his own.
The piece makes smart use of Hannah Sibai’s sparse but versatile set, and the evocative music is well-deployed (props both to Musical Director Ross Clark and on-stage musician Laura Stutter.) Although the pacing could be tighter and some of the lighter scenes feel a little random, this is a production to be applauded. It skilfully tackles an area of colonial history that too many Brits are still shamefully ignorant about without ever being too heavy-handed – my own knowledge of Partition has been mainly formed by a few Merchant Ivory films and that episode of Doctor Who: yay for the English education system! – while at the same time exploring those most universal of themes: family, home, and love.
Alex and Eliza was at Northern Stage on 29th October. It tours to Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh in November. More info here.