What Fatima Did...
Hampstead Theatre Autumn 2009
The Hampstead Theatre can celebrate the discovery of a very talented new writer in Atiha Sen Gupta, a graduate of the theatre's youth program whose first full-length play this is.
What Fatima Did is an insightful and emotionally involving drama - with a full share of laughs - that is both complex and subtle in its understanding of human behaviour.
A group of 17-year-old friends are shaken when their pal Fati, hitherto totally non-religious and unpolitical, suddenly decides to wear a hijab (the basic, minimal Islamic headcovering).
Fatima herself never appears onstage, and we never learn what led to her decision, which is altogether appropriate, because the young playwright is really interested in exploring the effect her decision has on the others, and on how very fragile and easily shaken our social constructs are.
Fatima's English boyfriend is convinced that this is somehow a rejection of him. The girls are more upset that she won't come drinking with them.
Her liberated mother is deeply offended by what she sees as a step backward into repression, her teacher tries earnestly to turn all this into some sort of learning experience for the class, and her brother tries to be both philosophically detached and loyally supportive.
Things are said in shock that the speakers instantly regret, people are pushed into (or discover they've always been in) polarised positions, and things crumble that no one could have guessed were so insecure.
And all this, created with a young writer's thorough knowledge of the world she's describing, rings absolutely true and has a great deal to tell us about both the intellectual and emotional maturity of young people under stress, and about their inevitable and forgivable limits.
There are no villains to the play, only honourable youngsters trying to make sense of a world that a very small thing was able to shake their sense of.
Of course the play isn't perfect. The kids have to become more and less insightful and eloquent as the playwright needs them as mouthpieces, and some of the jokes are forced.
The mechanics of keeping Fatima offstage sometimes get awkward, and the play is perhaps ten minutes too long, with the playwright unable to keep the energy level from flagging.
But there is a real playwright here, and a real play - and that is something to celebrate. What Fatima Did rewards seeing with its own merits, and especially so as the introduction of an exciting new writer.
It certainly deserves - and will surely have - a life longer than its two-week run in the Hampstead season.
Director Kelly Wilkinson papers over the occasional cracks and guides her mainly young cast to excellent and believable performances, with particular praise deserved by Gethin Anthony as the deeply upset boyfriend and Asher Ali as the caught-in-the-middle brother.
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Review of What Fatima Did - Hampstead Theatre 2009