Nyla Levy’s Does My Bomb Look Big In This? gets a lot of things about being a young person now right in the simplest of ways. Friendships taking place as much in bedrooms and by lockers as through WhatsApp and Snapchat; the weirdly skewed sense of the scale of things you have as a young person, where neither your reactions nor those of anyone else seem in proportion somehow; your growing awareness of how things are unfair.
This Tamasha production, directed by Mingyu Lin, has a lot of fun with this, wringing humour out of the inherent ridiculousness of teenagers (sorry, teenagers, but trust me) while also giving an empathetic account of how young people can be radicalised, isolated from others and eventually lost to them completely. Levy herself plays Yasmin, the “Terror Baby” as she’s named by the press, who strides her best friend Aisha’s telling of her story, played by Halema Hussain, to give her side of things. Alongside these two is Eleanor Williams. She’s an actor, we’re told early on.
The small cast unroll the year leading up to Yasmin’s leaving to Syria before she can even collect her GCSE results. Her family life is a mess – sickness, infidelity – but there’s love there. She starts to notice Islamophobic racism more, and her online activity leads to picking up the direct attention of someone who would like to recruit her. She listens.
There’s unfortunately a lack of a light touch to much of Does My Bomb Look Big In This?, however. Levy’s metatheatrical format, of having Aisha, Yasmin and this white actor consciously construct the story for us, leads to some clumsy moments of exposition which surely could have been avoided or embraced less awkwardly (“What happened then?” “You already know!” “Well this lot don’t!”). Levy’s script wants to be handled so nimbly, but the pacing here tends to trudge. The weirdness of Levy’s premise for this story and the detail of Aisha and Yasmin’s friendship deserve a bolder, more lively realisation.
All three actors are capable, funny and moving, which made me want even more of the self-conscious role-swapping between them than we had, to keep things fluid, for the same reason I wish there’d been more movement. Much is made of this moment when Williams, as the white actor disgruntled with the stereotypical, unlikeable parts she’s playing, complains in the way non-white actors, like Levy herself, have had to for years. And this is of course correct, but it feels like a conversation we’ve had on and off stage for years, heavy-handedly represented here, and not particularly funny because of it. A lot of the humour lands like this for me: more of the same, safe.
The most fun is had in digital scenes between the characters. Tanya Stephenson lights Williams, as a mysterious WhatsApp contact, in blue, face upturned, calmly saying out loud the names of violent videos being sent to Yasmin. A group chat between Yasmin’s brother, a cousin in Bradford and his whiteboy friend Josh has a great energy. Accordingly, Moi Tran’s design zeroes in on the way tech is threaded throughout these girls’ lives – there’s the suggestion of an anonymous modern school setting with long, thin lockers and white plastic benches, and on the floor, symbols: the Twitter logo, the “message read” WhatsApp doubletick, +44, CBCD (some of Aisha’s GCSE results), A* (definitely not in Aisha’s results).
The rules of Yasmin, Aisha and the white actor’s storytelling are never quite made clear for us: it’s not apparent why Williams should be commenting in-character as Morgan at some times and as “Actor 3” at others, nor how Yasmin’s memory works with regards to her past with Aisha. In a more confident production I wouldn’t spare this internal logic a second thought, but here it makes up a part of a certain missing tightness.
Does My Bomb Look Big In This? is on at Soho Theatre till 8th June. More info here.