FEELING AFRAID AS IF SOMETHING TERRIBLE IS GOING TO HAPPEN at Edinburgh Festival Fringe
“exciting, original and very funny”
Samuel Barnett plays a stand-up comedian in his Edinburgh debut performance of Marcelo Dos Santos’s new play. He’s thirty-six, which he reassures us is fine in a tone of voice which suggests it’s maybe not. He’s incredibly neurotic, hopelessly single, spending his days scrolling through headless torsos on Grindr and working on his stand-up routines. Every so often we’re treated to a new gag, which range from jokes about Wetherspoons to feeling like you’re going to die if there’s blood in your cum to having the urge to crush a kitten to death with your bare hands. I think Barnett proves that any joke can be funny if the delivery is done right. At one point he even deconstructs the delivery of a perfect joke: the rule of three, alliteration, words which suddenly become funny when juxtaposed with something unexpected. I’m a bit of a nerd for writing theory so loved this bit. As the play plays with form itself, in a stand-up routine which becomes theatre (or vice-versa), it’s very interested in the masking of one form with the other, just as the character masks his underlying anxieties with his jokes.
But when he meets a new man known only as the ‘American’, his jokes just aren’t going to cut it. The American has an uncommon medical conditions where laughing could literally kill him. So he can’t laugh at any of his jokes, even though he reassures him he really does find them funny. Barnett’s character – who doesn’t seem to be given a name – ends up jeopardising the relationship, the first proper relationship of his thirty-six years, and the story ends on a brilliant punchline, which we realise it’s been working towards from quite early on. It’s great.
Barnett’s timing, of both the comedy and the desperation, is impeccable. He’s on full speed from the moment the lights go up and it feels like he hardly stops from breath. And then the moments he does, the moments when he drops the mic and lets us really hear him, we cling on to, hoping we might find some truths, hoping we might be trusted enough to let him be vulnerable for a moment. Matthew Xia’s direction astutely sets the pace of Santos’s text, and works brilliantly to ensure Barnett connects with each and every person in the audience as he whizzes around the stage. It very much feels like we’re at a comedy gig in the way Barnett forms his rapport with us. He rolls his eyes and we feel like rolling ours with him. Each expression and tiny gesture is carefully timed and delivered. We’re totally there with him and his frustrations at the American for not getting slapstick, and other British cultural references. The whole performance is totally captivating.
At the heart of the story, of the jokes, is a comedian, a man in his mid-thirties, living in London and feeling incredibly lonely. And when someone sees this for what it is, he struggles to decide whether or not he can let himself open up. We don’t really find out what happens in the end, but the final gag we’re left with suggests there probably is quite a bit of hope for this character. It’s an exciting, original and very funny new play, with a magnificent, five-star performance from Barnett at the helm.
Reviewed 12th August 2022
by Joseph Winer
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Favour, a new co-production between The Bush Theatre and Clean Break written by Ambreen Razia, is a tight and heartfelt drama following a working-class Muslim family in East London. It deftly engages with sweeping themes of addiction and its manifestation, mental illness and its effects on parenting, and the connections between social marginalization and the criminal justice system, at the granular and interpersonal level.
The play understands the notion of retributive justice not simply as a harmful status quo that is enforced by the criminal justice system, but as a social norm that bleeds into our familial relationships.
Aleena returns from prison to her mother Noor and daughter Leila. She quarrels with Noor over the way she ought to reintegrate with society, and is more permissive with Leila as she attempts to reclaim her role as primary parent, leading to a conflict of authority. As tensions build, doubt is cast on Aleena’s ability to parent, as well as the circumstances of her incarceration. Though Favour’s plot has its twists and turns, the play is driven chiefly by its layered characters and their complex relationships.
Leila is on the precipice of figuring out what she wants from her life and the people in it. In the hands of Ashna Rabheru, she is equally timid and expressive. Leila is comfortable in the world that her Grandmother, Noor, has built for her—her school, her masjid, the rituals of Islam—even though she bristles with it at times. Simultaneously, she is drawn to the visible affection her mother shows her. Most of all, Leila has not yet discarded the urge to please the people she cares about the most, at the expense of her own wants and needs.
Noor understands and meets Leila’s needs as best as she can, but is followed by a spectre of shame and judgement cast by her surrounding community. Throughout the course of the play, she feels equally motivated by that shame and genuine concern for Leila’s wellbeing. She has a penchant for tradition and order, though she seems to privately understand their pitfalls. Renu Brindle plays Noor with lived-in nuance.
Aleena rages at the same community, their judgement and hypocrisy, at a mother who is unable to show her affection, at the clutches of the carceral state that hold on even after her release from prison. Aleena’s wit is biting and acerbic, though not always well-aimed, and Avita Jay brings her to life with boundless energy and verve. Amid her sharp perception, Aleena often cannot see past her own limitations or her projected desires for Leila.
Fozia, Noor’s sister, serves as comic relief and is played with specificity and perfect timing by Rina Fatania. She also, as a deeply flawed pillar of the community, metaphorically conveys the hollowness of middle class respectability.
The tension that Razia plots between the central characters remains constant throughout Favour, even in its most tender and comedic moments. This tension is aided by the expert co-direction of Róisín McBrinn and Sophie Dillon Moniram. They manage physical space with care, crafting uncomfortable triangular chasms between characters and invasions or personal space when appropriate.
The stagecraft, spearheaded by lighting designer Sally Ferguson and set & costume designer Liz Whitbread, hits its peaks when it dips into the surreal. The scene where Aleena attempts to build a fantasy life for Leila brims with campy pleasure and impossibility—a couch becomes a pink salon chair with glowing trim, a mocktail rotates into view from the back wall of the set.
The ending with respect to Noor and Aleena’s relationship feels a little too neat, and potentially unearned. Favour on the whole however, remains a sharp and emotionally impactful piece of work.