Review: Moormaid at The Arcola Theatre

The fact that the opening scene, in which disenchanted art teacher Melissa tries to hang herself with her favourite scarf, isn’t the most dramatic moment in Moormaid immediately tells you quite a lot about Marion Bott’s play. When her attempt to end it all is interrupted by the arrival of Mehdi, a former student who stood her up for dinner two years earlier and hasn’t been seen since, things start to get really messy – in more ways than one.

Photo credit: Anika Wagner

This is partly because Melissa (Sarah Alles) has since got married to Simon, who’s away a lot for work and with whom she maintains a cheery but detached phone relationship; they sound more like old friends who haven’t seen each other in a while than two newly-weds. But complications arise mostly because Mehdi (Moe Bar-El) isn’t alone; he’s accompanied by his own personal ghost – his friend Khan (Ali Azhar), who he abandoned in the desert while they were both off fighting for IS.

This fact, revealed partially in Act 1 and confirmed in Act 2, feels at odds with the mercy mission that brings Mehdi to Melissa’s apartment, and the way in which his intervention “saves” her not only from her suicide attempt but potentially also from a meaningless, joyless future. This in turn prompts an interesting debate: is it possible for someone who’s been radicalised – and acted on it – to still be the person their friends and family once knew, and is redemption ever really an option for someone who’s committed such acts of brutality? Mehdi’s left the desert behind and seems to feel real remorse; on first meeting he’s a nice enough guy, and his adoration of Melissa appears to be genuine, if a little overbearing and dysfunctional (he calls her “Miss Darwood” far more than he uses her first name, and essentially asks to revive their teacher-student relationship by requesting painting lessons in exchange for the pleasure of his company). And yet he also admits to being a killer, and there are a couple of explosive, unsettling moments in Act 2 where we really believe it – all credit to Moe Bar-El’s excellent and chillingly convincing performance.

Mehdi isn’t the only one who’s complex and contradictory, however; all three characters are more than they first appear, and this is reflected in their sensitive portrayals from not only Bar-El, but also Sarah Alles and Ali Azhar, all making their UK debuts in convincing style. After the initial shock of seeing him, Alles’ Melissa somehow maintains an air of dignified authority despite the predicament in which Mehdi finds her, and the chemistry between the two is very believable. As Khan, Ali Azhar brings a different kind of energy to the room; there’s a restless, pent-up anger and hurt over what’s happened to him, and constant reminders of where he’s been and what he was doing – but there’s also a playful and surprisingly likeable side to his character, which further blurs the line between friend and terrorist.

Photo credit: Anika Wagner

Director Zois Pigadas takes Bott’s script and gives it an additional artistic twist, with Melissa and Mehdi painting each other’s bodies and engaging in dizzyingly hypnotic movement sequences as the tension between them builds and, finally, erupts. Some of the cultural references – specifically to “the androgynous” – are perhaps a bit on the obscure side (they went over my head, anyway), but fine performances and an intelligent, balanced portrayal of radicalisation and the psyche of a terrorist make Moormaid well worth a look.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: Our Big Love Story at The Hope Theatre

In June 2017, Theresa May concluded her response to the UK’s third terrorist attack in as many months with these defiant words: “We must come together, we must pull together, and united we will take on and defeat our enemies.”

The call for unity and defiance is a common refrain at times like these, and rightly so; faced with such mindless horror and violence, it’s important that we look out for each other, and of course we should present a united front against those who want to harm us. But what happens when that determination to protect our way of life at all costs goes a step too far?

In Our Big Love Story, Stephanie Silver explores the idea of radicalisation of teenagers – only not, as one might expect, that of young Muslims. Instead it’s a young white girl, Destiny (Holly Ashman), who’s drawn in by the racist rhetoric of her dad’s EDL group following the July 7 bombings in 2005. Her anger at the devastation and loss of life is both understandable and relatable, but it’s also wildly misplaced – having finally convinced herself that her classmate and secret crush Anjum (Naina Kohli) isn’t a terrorist because she’s not a Muslim, she moves on to a new and equally innocent target, with horrifying consequences.

Though the story takes place on and immediately after the 2005 attack, it could just as easily be happening today, at a time when the threat of terror attacks remains high, and far right groups in the UK and overseas gain ever more ground, both socially and politically. That said, July 7 feels like a particularly significant landmark to choose: the first example of radical Islamist terror most of us – and certainly the four teenage characters in the play – can remember on home soil, and the moment at which attitudes towards Muslims began to shift rapidly in an uncomfortable direction.

The play begins as two separate love stories, neither of which has any obvious connection to terrorism; it’s not until it’s almost over that all the threads finally link together. While Destiny and Anjum discuss their mutual attraction and Destiny worries what her dad will think, Katie (Emelia Marshall Lovsey) and Jack (Alex Britt) are more coy about their own budding romance, recalling with some embarrassment their parents’ attempts to educate them on the birds and bees. It’s instantly clear that although they’re on the brink of adulthood, these young people are still of an age where their parents have an influence on them – a fact that will take on darker significance as the play goes on.

Into the midst of all this youthful exuberance steps The Teacher (Osman Baig), a religious Muslim man injured in the attack, with an account that’s harrowing in its graphic detail. He’s traumatised by what he saw that day, but even more so by not knowing the fate of a fellow passenger and his little girl, and over the course of the play describes how this trauma affected his life in the days and weeks afterwards. At the same time, he gives us an insight into the judgment and suspicion faced by Muslims in the wake of this and other attacks – a judgment he eventually begins to turn on himself as his precious faith slips away.

The Teacher’s appearances slow the tempo of Calum Robshaw’s otherwise fast-paced production, with Osman Baig’s direct and personal delivery ensuring that we hang on his every word. The play’s conclusion brings all five characters together and is performed with genuine and heartfelt emotion by the young cast, but it’s reassuring to see that while in some ways their lives have been irrevocably changed, we can still catch glimpses of those giddy teenagers we met earlier, still falling in love and convinced they can conquer the world.

I saw an extract from the opening of Our Big Love Story at an Actor Awareness scratch night last year, and was intrigued by the multiple different themes that the play seemed to be dealing with: love, sex, religion, racism, porn… It’s satisfying therefore to see how the full-length play successfully weaves these themes together, forming a coherent narrative that’s thought-provoking, moving and, at times, quite unsettling. There’s still a lot going on, and the play could be longer to allow it to delve into each issue in more depth – but as it stands, the story already provides more than enough food for thought to keep us going for quite some time.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉