Friday, 28 June 2013

Theatre review: Pigeons

Carrie Cracknell directs the next play in the Royal Court's Weekly Rep season, Suhayla El-Bushra's disturbing, often comic Pigeons, a pretty brutal look at the fragility of relationships in a multicultural society. Played out in more or less reverse order and divided into "Shit That Went Wrong," "Shit That Went Right" and "Shit That Went Wrong (Again)" (the chapter titles spray-painted onto Chloe Lamford's now-familiar packing crate set,) it follows two teenage friends, Ashley (Ryan Sampson) and Amir (Nav Sidhu.) Ashley is the child of a pretty nasty divorce that's seen him and his sister in the custody of different parents, and his friendship with Amir, that dates back to primary school, has provided him with a second family. He often stays over, playing chess with Amir's father Hassan (Paul Bhattacharjee,) flirting with his sister Ameena (Farzana Dua Elahe) and eating his mum's samosas.

But in the opening scene, which is the last chronologically, we saw only the sad vestiges of that close relationship, as the two have ended up with opposing violent gangs, divided on ethnic lines, and the aggression they have to show each other to impress their new friends is at odds with the happy memories they still share.

Actually what El-Bushra is showing here isn't a division that starts along racial lines; instead we see that when cracks start to show people with an agenda are able to take advantage of the boys' vulnerability to fan racial and religious hatred. In fact the problems start with the age-old fight over a girl, Leah (Angela Terence.) But when Hassan's sudden death follows soon afterwards, his calming influence is lost. Afraid of having to be the man of the house now, Nav falls in with a crowd from the mosque, despite the fact that they make Ameena uncomfortable. In turn, Nav's aggressive new environment leaves Ashley prone to the horribly silver-tongued Carl (Ferdy Roberts,) the apparently reasonable face of a racist party scouting for young members.

Pigeons (the title coming from Carl's contemptuous analogy for Muslims) is a pretty dark piece tempered by a lot of humour. Perhaps not as much humour as tonight's audience seemed to think, they were one of those that laughed at everything. But with engaging performances from the two leads (though their characters' Jafaican accents are at times impenetrable,) and Sampson particularly on top comic form, it's easy to see how people might warm to the characters and overlook just how bleak the play's underlying message is. Still, it's an entertaining package for a very serious subject, and once again Cracknell's production feels slicker than the one week of rehearsal should have produced.

Pigeons by Suhayla El-Bushra is booking until the 29th of June at the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Downstairs.

Running time: 1 hour 5 minutes straight through.

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