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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Reviewed – 27th November 2019
“a work of significance and spirited potency,a deep and intelligent examination of people and themes too rarely presented on stage”
A desire to discover roots and gain a sense of belonging drives the absorbing new play Homing Birds, which comes to the Tara Theatre in Earlsfield at the end of a short autumn tour.
Award-winning writer Rukhsana Ahmad’s story is simple and thought-provoking, if a shade predictable, but the well-drawn characters and sparkling performances take it to a higher level altogether.
Produced by the always exciting and risk-taking Kali Theatre company (who specialise in developing and touring contemporary work by women writers of South Asian descent) Homing Birds focuses on an earnest young doctor, Saeed, who was sent to London as a refugee after the US invasion of Afghanistan.
Brought up by a kind British couple he decides he wants to rediscover his family and his heritage back home after the death of his adoptive mother, especially wondering if he will ever see his much-loved sister again.
It’s a well-crafted drama that portrays the pain of separation very well – in this case the adoptive father coming to terms with the death of his wife and their past together and the young man mourning his “mum” as well as the loss, physically and emotionally, of his homeland.
As well as showing us the “settled” life Saeed enjoys (and appreciates) in London after being forced to leave home with less than a day’s notice, the play explores how memories of the past can be romanticised. Saeed has a rosy remembrance of boiled sweets and old songs rather than the war that pushed him away from his family and homeland. What could so easily have been another play about the impact of war on individuals becomes something much more interesting and challenging.
As Saeed Jay Varsani is a revelation and definitely a name to watch for the future. He breaks the fourth wall in this charming performance space sufficiently to allow the audience insight into his thoughts and nightmares without resorting to obvious dramatic soliloquising to a front row from whom he is often only inches away. It is a character we love immediately and Varsani makes it a joy to follow Saeed’s journey of discovery and to share in the different facets of love he experiences.
It is important that any member of the audience can have an idea about the difficulty in tracing roots and feeling one belongs somewhere, especially when one’s knowledge of the place in question relies on questionable memories and the horrors of news headlines. It is here that the writing is most effective and Varsani is always a credible pilgrim, who we just know will be rewarded in the end.
Mona Khalili plays Saeed’s caring sister Nazneen in flashback and a health worker in present day Kabul with a delicacy and understanding. She demonstrates a sacrificial strength in Naz’s decision to marry in order for her brother to have enough money to seek asylum in the first place and her gentle portrayal stands in contrast to the abominations of war which have surrounded her for so long.
As straight-talking Afghan politician Rabbia Suzanne Ahmet gets her teeth into a role that is both shocking in its sense of ambition and commendable as she tries to help Saeed in his quest by encouraging him to return to Kabul to work as a doctor with Medicins Sans Frontieres. She earns several of the few laughs in the play through her appetite for power and no nonsense lust for justice for a people weighed down by history and experience.
John O’Mahony manages to make much of his role as Michael, Saeed’s adoptive father, battling with his own loss yet displaying a strength and support for Saeed. It is a shame that his character rather fizzles out as he also deserves the positive ending of a hope-filled play.
Director Helena Bell ensures the pace never slows without allowing the play to shoot off and miss the tender moments. Huge credit to Helen Coyston for an imaginative and realistic set, doubling as a London home and Kabul, with extra praise to Dinah Mullen for an exciting and atmospheric soundscape.
Homing Birds works on many levels: not only is the male character strong and determined as he faces personal, political and realistically tough issues, but Ahmad also introduces gritty women not frightened of speaking out about taboos and provoking debate about arranged child marriage and other controversial concerns involving women.
If the climax is signposted after just a few minutes and everything is wrapped up a smidgeon too easily, this doesn’t prevent Homing Birds being a work of significance and spirited potency,a deep and intelligent examination of people and themes too rarely presented on stage.
Reviewed by David Guest
Photography by Robert Day
Tara Theatre until 7th December