Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Theatre review: The Infidel

As he documented in Fame earlier this year, David Baddiel missed out on his chance at becoming a millionaire writer of musicals when Andrew Lloyd Webber couldn't tell the difference between him and Ben Elton. He's making up for it now with the book and lyrics to the musical adaptation of his own film The Infidel, with music by Erran Baron Cohen. Another very silly comedy about religion, this one has a definite feel that nothing is out of bounds. Mahmud (Kev Orkian) is a minicab driver and self-styled fun guy to be around, whose son Rashid (Gary Wood) feels like he's the one having to parent his father. He's well-liked and though hardly the most devout Muslim, is quietly a believer. He has a major crisis of identity though when his mother dies and he discovers adoption papers proving he was actually born to Jewish parents. Hoping to be allowed to meet his dying biological father, he tries to learn enough about Judaism to impress the rabbi, while keeping this development from his family.

The already farcical situation is complicated by the fact that Rashid's girlfriend Ji-Ji (Siobhan Athwal) has a new stepfather: The radical hate preacher Arshad (Alexander Andreou) will refuse his blessing to their marriage if he finds anything about Mahmud's family that isn't to his liking.

Orkian is a tremendously appealing leading man, his everyman persona setting up the premise that the average Muslim has more in common with any other man on the street than with the high-profile extremists. He's also devil-may-care enough to set up the show's politically-incorrect humour right from the start. Any show that has an extremist imam threatening - through song, of course - to put a "fatty-fatty-fatwa" on anyone who displeases him is setting out its stall pretty clearly.

Of course it's open season on all faiths, so there's a good setpiece to open the second act when Mahmud is thrown into the deep end by his friend, and tutor in all things Jewish, Lenny (Andrew Paul.) Having to prove his Jewishness at a Hampstead bar mitzvah, Mahmud ends up in the middle of a big song-and-dance number about how Jewish Gwyneth Paltrow is. The cast also includes Mina Anwar as Mahmud's confused wife Saamiya and former X Factor fodder Melanie Masson as an unhelpful civil servant, while Melanie Marshall gets to steal the show more than once in multiple roles.

Baddiel and Kerry Michael's production is a bit rough around the edges, but it sails by on charm and chutzpah. Baron Cohen's music doesn't have a great deal of variety so only the big comic numbers really work, the more low-key and emotional moments falling a bit flat. But the show largely knows where its strengths lie and plays to them; the happy ending keeps threatening to be cheesy, but as these moments are constantly undercut with interruptions this doesn't happen. The Infidel pushes the boundaries with the utmost affection, and is frequently laugh-out-loud funny.

The Infidel by David Baddiel, Erran Baron Cohen and Arvind Ethan David is booking until the 2nd of November at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

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