Ishy Din’s first full-length play, rolling into the Bush following its premiere at the Oldham Coliseum, is a very encouraging debut. Though occasionally overloaded and probably overlong, Snookered is a smart new piece filled with acutely observed dialogue and well managed tension.
Four old friends gather for the birthday of a dead mate in a Middlesbrough pool dive, the occasion for an annual piss-up, and now the scene for a drunken settling of scores. Six years have passed since T’s death, and nothing much has changed in the Northern town. Three of the men have continued their lives, building families or resentments, or resentments towards their families, while the fourth has escaped to a new life in London that seems scarcely more fulfilling.
The men are all young British Muslims, and many of Snookered’s most intriguing moments develop from the conflict between the cultural expectations placed on them by their families and the social pressures of making their own way in the world. High expectations of familial closeness are seen from opposing angles, as both emotionally supporting and suffocating, and ultimately the dense network of close cousins, aunts and in-laws makes the net of betrayals which surrounds the friends all the more inexorable.
Muzz Khan excels as the terrifyingly familiar Shaf, whose bipolar drunkenness blurs the line between matey banter and malicious intent, and his presence dominates the play as surely as he dominates the bar. Asif Khan provides excellent support as his loveably dim-witted sidekick Kamy, and Jaz Deol finds the perfect balance of affection and caution as Billy, the best friend who seems to have fled the sinking ship. Iqbal Khan directs the reunion with a canny ear for simmering tension, the gulfs between drunken boasting and dismal reality lurch open in unbearable silences. The cast cope well with Din’s idiomatic dialogue, and if the production is a hair’s breadth away from absolute naturalism, it soon lulls you into its subtly heightened world.
After children and animals, pool tables must be the next most terrifying prospect for an actor to face, and the cast prove substantially more adept at sinking pints than pool balls. It’s a small point but it becomes a larger issue as the various aborted games pull focus away from the performances. Ciaran Bignall’s design is generally superb, but the projection of a recorded game above the table to simulate the passing of time only heightens this rather idiosyncratic problem.
Din’s set-up also suffers from a problem of familiarity. Before the first tequila has been shot it’s clear as day that dark secrets are frothing at the back of his characters’ throats, and though many of the reveals are well handled, there are just too many of them. Everyone seems to have betrayed everyone else a dozen times, and there’s something of a plot hole in the denouement that dulls its impact considerably. Din implies that its their situation that has snookered them, caught between two cultures, between heritage and hedonism or family and freedom, but it becomes increasingly clear that the main reason they can’t take their shot is because they’re all conniving bastards on an exhausting scale.
Nevertheless, with commanding performances, ideas to spare and some fantastic swearing, Snookered hits more than it misses. As the first part of a planned trilogy about the experiences of British Pakistani men across three generations it builds considerable anticipation for the second. If Din’s grasp of dialogue and idiom currently exceeds his skill in plotting and structuring, then his first play still offers much to praise and plenty to enjoy.