Navin Chowdhry, Matthew Needham, Stephanie Street, Elyes Gabel, Chetna Pandya, and Amit Shah
The Royal Court’s New Writers Festival begins with Alia Bano’s debut, a play exploring the ups and downs of dating within the modern Muslim community.
Sabrina, an events organiser who enjoys drinking, clubbing and taking the odd Ecstasy tablet, is looking for love.
Having already worked her way around the Asian dating network, she seems only to be attracting Brothers – the devout, fundamental Muslims whose views on women, the Qur’an and drinking sit uncomfortably with her 21st century lifestyle.
Then her gay Muslim flat mate Zain and his partner Mark pair her up with Reza, a sweet but dedicated Muslim man, to work on a charity fashion show.
As the pair get to know each other better, an attraction begins to develop between them, and Sabrina finds herself worrying about how Reza’s strict Muslim family – and, in particular, his Hijab-wearing sister Nazia – will react when they meet her.
Bano’s play is a skilfully and beautifully written piece. She has authentically captured the complexities of relationships in the British Muslim community and, while the text is full of culturally specific references and language, it is written in a way that doesn’t exclude a wider audience, but rather gives a deeper insight into an unseen side on the Muslim community.
The script is full of witty one-liners and amusing dialogue that prevent the play from ever feeling preachy. Furthermore she tackles prejudice and intolerance from both sides of the fence; that of modern Muslims towards the ‘fundos’ (as Zain calls them) as well as the other way round.
The material is well handled by director Nina Raine. The Court’s upstairs theatre’s intimate space has been cleverly used, with the action playing out on a traverse stage that designer Lucy Osborne has transformed into a red catwalk. This becomes, alternately: Sabrina and Zain’s flat, a Starbucks coffee shop and the backstage area at the fashion show. The staging can occasionally make you feel as if you’re at a tennis match, but the play whips along in such away that this is never a problem for long.
The ensemble cast are also strong, in particular Stephanie Street as the strong yet vulnerable Sabrina and Amit Shah as the somewhat awkward but sincere Reza. But while Navin Chowdhry is also good as the camp best friend, at times his performance does feel a little hammed up and he could do with toning it down just a touch.
Shades is a well-written, modern play that illustrates a different side to contemporary Islam while also demonstrating why the Royal Court Theatre is renowned for its way with new writing talent. This is an impressive debut and Bano’s witty and unique voice mark her out as someone to look out for in the future.