“Barrie offers the majority of light relief throughout the play, her rolling eyes and gurning facial expressions being priceless”
Northern town. Tick. The ins and outs of the local offie. Tick. This may sound like we’re venturing into Open All Hours territory, however, Tabitha Mortiboy’s latest play, The Amber Trap, is far removed from the corny jokes and canned laughter of the former. It’s a modern twist on a staple of British culture.
Things have been fine and dandy in the local corner shop. Everything working like clockwork, the same old faces come shuffling in and out. Katie and her girlfriend Hope have been harmoniously working at the shop for two years, stealing kisses in between the aisles. It’s Katie’s little haven, where she can be her true self with Hope, without anyone watching. This soon changes once manager Jo, hires new kid Michael. As sweet and innocent as the boy seems, he instantly shifts the dynamic of their microcosm, becoming a real cat amongst the pigeons.
Where Mortiboy scores most with this play is her examination of Katie and Hope’s relationship, from the highs of young love to the lows of painful truths. The ambiguous and abrupt ending comes as a deflated anti-climax, which leaves a tinge of disappointment. There are also times where Katie’s actions and motivations are a little questionable, or you feel, as an audience, you don’t quite understand her reasonings, however, Olivia Rose Smith plays her with naturalistic sensitivity and believability that allows you to oversee this.
Fanta Barrie as Hope is fiery, fun and has a gob that can get her into trouble, but under it all is a complete softy, infatuated with her girlfriend. Barrie offers the majority of light relief throughout the play, her rolling eyes and gurning facial expressions being priceless. Misha Butler, playing Michael, is skin-crawlingly odd. His progression from sweet with strange tendencies, to full blown creep with a troubled past, makes it uncomfortable to watch at times, although rather predictable – it’s always the nice ones!
The set (designed by Jasmine Swan) has been painstakingly put together to recreate a decrepit, ageing corner shop we all know and love, stocked with cheap booze, packets of crisps that shouldn’t be sold separately, and sad-looking sandwiches. The intricate detail Swan has gone into helps to suck the audience into the claustrophobic, “matchbox” world of the store.
With an ace soundtrack of pounding Noughties indie tunes, the crackly shop radio plays an integral part in emphasising certain moods of the characters or atmospheres within scenes. Annie May Fletcher’s sound design proves an important component within the overall story.
As strong as the performances and as brilliant as the designs are, the writing is where certain cracks show with much of the dialogue falling back on cliches and predictable outcomes. Nevertheless, it’s still an enjoyable trip down the road for a pint of laughter and a box of unnerving drama.
“The play illustrates the beauty of complexity; of embracing nuance rather than shying away from it”
In June 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favour of Colorado’s Masterpiece Cakeshop’s decision to refuse service for a same-sex couple, just a month before Iman Quereshi was announced as the winner of Papatango’s 10th Anniversary New Writing Prize with The Funeral Director. Justice Kennedy summarised that ‘Religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage are protected views and in some instances protected forms of expression’, though the court did not provide a lasting precedent for religious exemptions for businesses over clients’ sexual orientations. With The Funeral Director, Quereshi defiantly resists such deferral of responsibility. While courts wrangle and tabloids simplify, art rises. What emerges is a triumphant piece of theatre, which, despite its wonderfully stubborn insistence on complete humanisation, retains a deftness to its powerful LGBTQ storyline.
We begin with Ayesha (Aryana Ramkhalawon) and her husband Zeyd (Maanuv Thiara). Stuck in a relatively unspectacular (but not unloving) marriage, the pair manage Ayesha’s family business: an Islamic funeral home. However, when Tom (Tom Morley) arrives with a seemingly simple request — for them to provide a dignified service for his late boyfriend, their refusal leads to cultural and religious disarray. When Ayesha’s childhood friend-turned-lawyer Janey (Jessica Clark) returns to care for her own mother, the incident’s ramifications expand further. The play becomes an exploration of modern British identity and perception. Clark’s warmly charismatic Janey represents an increasingly secularised London elite: professional, liberal, firm, but fiercely inclusive and just. Her condescension towards the ‘backwards people’ of her hometown crumbles so as not to create an overpowering division of ‘us and them’ — incidentally, the racialised dynamic Zeyd fears from the British media.
This is the play’s most complex and successful negotiation. In creating Zeyd as a genuinely caring and pragmatic character, director Hannah Hauer King avoids a descent into generalisation. His homophobia is condemnable from the outset, but his dilemma embodies the encroachment of community pressure upon personal belief — forces managed with ease by the constantly endearing Thiara. He would love his own child regardless of its sexuality, but he cannot face the wider fallout from the Muslim community. Although this selectivity is hardly a foundation for sincere tolerance, it allows the play to develop the ideas of personal
spirituality and ideological emancipation which we hope eventually touch Zeyd too: a loving Allah would not want Muslims to suffer persecution owing to their sexuality and loves all, Ayesha explains at the close.
Again though, the play is woven with a precision which rightly champions the voices of its queer characters. Morley’s anguish as Tom prompts Ayesha’s transformation, but it is his boyfriend’s faith who provides the reasoning. Even in absence, his power is devastating, embodying the strength of queer Muslims while symbolising trauma’s potential results in the fight for existence. The play illustrates the beauty of complexity; of embracing nuance rather than shying away from it. Queer intersectionality’s very foundations within British society are questioned and embraced under the lights of Southwark Playhouse. The result is mesmerising.