BROWN BOYS SWIM at Edinburgh Festival Fringe
“The real strength of Khan’s script is in the dialogue: natural, light and really playful”
Anish Roy and Varun Raj play two best friends, Mohsen and Kash, in a new play by Karim Khan about friendship, adolescence and religious identity. Mohsen and Kash are Muslim. Unlike their peers, they choose not to drink alcohol, don’t get invited to all the parties and, critically, can’t swim. After Kash manages to bag an invite to a pool party in one months’ time, they begin making regular visits to the local swimming pool to try and change this. But on their way to learning backstroke and front crawl, they begin to question other choices they make, and their friendship is put to the test with tragic consequences.
The real strength of Khan’s script is in the dialogue: natural, light and really playful. Rather than each scene revolving around big dramatic plot points, we get an insight into the dynamic between the characters, who pray together, spend time with each other’s families, and know each and every part of the other person. We also find out quite early on about an accident where a young man named Amir drowned some time earlier. The water is dangerous for two boys who never learnt to swim. Urdu phrases and other snippets of the boys’ culture are embedded in their conversations, and the scenes are performed with generosity and spontaneity by Roy and Raj. Kash is cheeky and flirty. Mohsen is more focused and averse to risk.
James Bailey’s lighting design takes us softly through a multi-coloured palette of blues and greens and purples. Combined with Roshan Gunga’s sound design and composition, with strings and splashes of water, the scene transitions give the feel of a gentle swim stroke, taking us carefully through the water to the next part of the story. James Button creates a blue-tiled wall, about waist-height, which is cleverly and subtly moved into different angles and positions, along with a couple of simple wooden benches to create the different scenes; it’s especially effective when the characters are behind it, the top of the wall acting as the pool edge, with Roy and Raj holding on for dear life, trying to find the courage to bop their heads below the water on the other side.
The script does build a little slowly, with a very abrupt plot-twist at the end which feels too fast to get the emotional impact I think this moment needs. We hear throughout the boys dealing with judgement, micro-aggressions and racism; shop security who assume they’re thieves; the revelation that the party invite was only because it was assumed they’d be bringing drugs; and the way the boys are stared at by people in the swimming pool. The ending attempts at showing the possible consequences of this structural, everyday prejudice, but it feels like a slightly shoehorned conclusion which jars with the tempo and energy of everything up to that point.
Questions around manhood, masculinity, and what makes a ‘good Muslim’, as well as the emotional dependency these two boys have on each other, is where the writing really thrives. Brown Boys Swim is an engaging drama, with compelling performances and a brilliant design and staging, with sharp direction from John Hoggarth.
Reviewed 14th August 2022
by Joseph Winer
Photography by Geraint Lewis
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