The Bush Theatre’s new strand, 2036, opens with a monologue, Pawn, which takes its name from the most downtrodden piece on the chessboard. The speaker, Jordan, is an amiable dimwit of mixed Trinidadian and South African heritage whose mother explains his background to him like a condescending anthropologist: ‘Trinidad and South Africa are countries with cultures too rich for most people to understand.’ Jordan describes his life in London which consists exclusively of battling oppression. He buys fried chicken from Yusef, a Turkish food-seller, and he learns a greeting in Turkish that Yusef recognises. So Yusef starts to slip him extra portions as a perk. A white teenager hears of this practice and orders Yusef to suspend the freebies to Jordan. And Yusef complies instantly. ‘I don’t know if Yusef ever made eye contact with me again after that,’ mopes Jordan.
The elements of this yarn seem bogus. Yusef doesn’t hand out free chicken wings because he likes Jordan’s friendliness but because he wants to reward a loyal customer. The detail about the white kid interfering with a street trader’s business sounds fictional. And why would Yusef obey the troublesome little oaf anyway? This depressing tale portrays inner London as a hate-crammed ghetto full of pea-brained white bullies, bemused Trinidadians and scared Turks who cave in to boorish thugs. A local theatre should support its neighbourhood, not smear it.
Jordan also relates an episode of police brutality. One of his friends was caught smoking weed on a midsummer’s afternoon and the cops asked him to empty his pockets and remove his trainers. This left him barefoot on the warm Tarmac. ‘He had to hop from foot to foot to stop his feet from burning,’ says Jordan. ‘That day,’ he adds solemnly, ‘cast a shadow.’ Perhaps he’s angling for an annual service of commemoration in Westminster Abbey. The play ends with Jordan discussing a schoolgirl who shows an interest in him. He shuns her because, as it turns out, he’s a racist. ‘In my school you don’t really get ratings for getting with Asian girls,’ he says. Why does the Bush promote this sort of xenophobic twaddle?
Soap writer Yasmeen Khan has set herself the colossal task of modernising The Importance of Being Earnest. The new version is set in present-day Yorkshire and the cast includes Mina Anwar who also directs. Let’s be frank. This isn’t a fantastic effort. The lighting is poor (perhaps a budgetary problem), and the noisy soundtrack tootles away annoyingly. The casting might be better. It’s heresy to say this but female directors sometimes hire young male performers on the basis of their looks rather than their talent. Gurjeet Singh (Earnest) seems a bit dishevelled and needy while Tom Dixon (Algy) is too cold and aloof for this sort of comedy. Both are exceptionally handsome, however. And there are excellent cameos from Paul Chahidi as a pretentious theatre director and from Hugh Dennis as a flatulent TV anchor.
The reworked plot is somewhat opaque. Algy, a young English film star, agrees to take on an Asian protégé who uses the stage-name Earnest. Both characters become involved with attractive young women and compete to invite them to dinner at Nando’s. The detail about Nando’s is funny if you happen to find ‘Nando’s’ amusing. In Wilde’s original the stakes are far higher. The male characters have to prove that they have enough wealth and status to marry into the upper classes. That’s a much tougher challenge than getting a girl to accept a chicken supper. And there aren’t enough links between high society in the Victorian era and a set of actors wrangling behind the scenes in present-day Yorkshire.
You could argue that Wilde’s masterpiece is the hardest play to adapt in the entire theatrical canon. Every detail is so exquisitely judged that the slightest alteration is self-defeating. It’s like trying to update mountaineering by installing a lift on Everest. On the plus side, the show has a zany, self-mocking spirit that comes chiefly from the females. Sindhu Vee, a star of the stand-up circuit, delivers a glowing performance as a cheesy TV interviewer. Melanie Marshall plays Miss Prism as an arrogant lifestyle guru who prattles meaningless jargon non-stop. Best of all is Mina Anwar herself. Her Lady Bracknell becomes a bossy Asian matriarch who interrogates hopeful suitors with hilarious comic fury.
Anwar is best known for playing a constable in Ben Elton’s The Thin Blue Line in the 1990s. She deserves to be a household name. When she appears in the West End, even in a supporting role, she’s invariably the funniest thing on stage. She and Khan appear to have the same vibrant and scornful sense of humour. And they don’t take themselves too seriously. Their apprentice-piece isn’t a roaring success but their next collaboration may well be. One tip. Stop borrowing and tell your own story.
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