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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Shades
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs February 2009

The Royal Court's Young Writers Festival has struck real gold once more. Alia Bano's play deals with a world rarely explored in current literature, creates characters of real depth and complexity, raises questions well worth thinking about, and does all this in an always engrossing, frequently moving and just as often comic drama.

Bano's subject is the lives of young British Muslims today, particularly those who don't fit expectations and stereotypes - indeed, one of her major points is that most people don't fit stereotypes, even those that the Muslim community has about itself.

At the centre of the play is Sabrina, a westernised Pakistani woman with a career, a stylish wardrobe, and even a Gay Best Friend - and a ticking biological and romantic clock. She meets Reza, a more religious and conservative young man with whom she would seem to have little in common. But as they get to know each other, they discover that neither is quite what the other assumes he or she is, and that in fact they have more in common than dividing them.

Complications arise in the form of his much more closed-minded sister and a treacherous friend, and the play does not sentimentally assume that love will conquer all, just that trying to see whether it might is worth the effort.

Along the way, there are opportunities for all the characters to explore just what it means to be a Muslim in London today. Reza discovers that it is possible for a woman not to follow all the strictures of Islam - to go without a hijab, for example - and still be a good person, while Sabrina realises that some compromise and some return to the faith might not violate her independence. The GBF faces his greatest fear and comes out, while even the pious sister is allowed to express the satisfaction she finds within the limitations imposed on her.

And in Bano's hands it makes for entertaining drama. The shy dance of unexpectedly falling in love is always fun to watch, and we find ourselves really caring when it looks like it might go bad. The nasty friend is a comic villain until he goes too far, and the gay friend and his British lover supply real warmth (as well as satisfyingly bitchy wit) in their scenes.

Director Nina Raine keeps things flowing and manoeuvres the difficult stage set-up of transverse (with the audience on two sides of a runway) very smoothly. She draws rich, attractive and fully-rounded characterisations from her cast, especially Stephanie Street as Sabrina, Amit Shah as Reza and Navin Chowdhry as the gay friend.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Shades - Royal Court 2009