Most of us will remember where we were on 7 July 2005: it is, after all, our very own 9/11. But although memories still resonate, the events of 7/7 took place almost a decade ago and I’d hoped that Damien Tracey’s 2013 play Warde Street, might present a new angle, a fresh perspective on these terrorist attacks and the ensuing aftermath.
And yet Tracey’s play offers none of this. Instead, it is a laboured, stale and overly sensationalised attempt to present what is in fact a simplified and cliched view of life for British Muslims following the London bombings.
The first half centres on politician David and his new wife and former colleague Samiya (or “Sam” for short, yes, just like the Camerons), whose brother in law has become embroiled in a murder trial. Ashfaq stands accused of murdering Eddie, the man who shot and killed his wife Yasmeenah in their Manchester shop two years after 7/7. We are told that David was going to be a character witness in Ashfaq’s trial, but he is now backing down, fearful of his political career.
It is perhaps bad luck that for personal reasons, Corin Stuart couldn’t perform on the evening I saw the production. Tracey took his place, and his acting was ever so slightly awkward, as was the lack of chemistry between him and the otherwise decent Avita Jay, who played the part of Samiya. For a while they talk politics, throwing around political buzzwords and tired cliches (“Lauren transformed the NHS”; “it’s time to take the PR out of politics”), none of which do much to engage the audience’s attention. Fortunately when Ashfaq (Omar Ibrahim) enters, they all start talking about his upcoming trial, and the plot begins to feel like it’s going somewhere.
In the second half, Tracey hurls us back to Ashfaq’s shop in Manchester – we presume on Warde Street – on the evening of the incident. The second half is much better than the first, mostly because of Shane Noone’s breathtaking performance as Eddie, a highly disturbed 7/7 widower. He quite literally crashes through Ashfaq’s shop door, drunk, insisting that Ashfaq drink with him. We learn that they are old school friends who lost touch; that Eddie has long resented Ashfaq’s Muslim faith, acquired after his boozing teenage years; that all he remembers from the funeral of his wife, Fiona, is Ashfaq, Yasmeenah and their children standing there, a complete family unit, everything he’s not. He conflates Ashfaq and Yasmeenah’s Islam with the extremist views of his wife’s killers, and, in his mentally unhinged state, is determined to reap revenge on the ideology he believes is responsible for his suffering.
Performances from all three actors – including Maya Soroya as Yasmeenah – in the second half are strong, and are without doubt what carry the production. But the drama could have been intensified further here had the play’s structure been different. We already knew what the outcome of this scene would be, and this knowledge only begged for some sort of new revelation, an unexpected twist. The anti-climax we were left with only made the tension feel laughably overdone.
It wasn’t just the play’s structure that let it down: for me, the entire premise grated. Of course hate crimes happen, and they are, worryingly, on the rise in this country. But it didn’t feel plausible that a seemingly liberal man would suddenly turn a gun on his oldest friend and his wife, for something they played absolutely no part in. Ashfaq’s plea to Eddie’s Irishness, his status as an outsider in Manchester at the height of the IRA years, is an awkward and unnecessary comparison.
The play is set two years after 7/7, yes, but what is the need for it to be performed now? The environment in which British Muslims live has changed significantly since then. Where is the discussion of Lee Rigby, of the rise of the far right? There is no mention, even, of the Iraq war or the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, two events that are critical to the discourse of terrorism, “other”-ing and the climate of fear that has enveloped Britain over the past decade.