Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Theatre review: Approaching Empty

Ishy Din’s Approaching Empty takes place in 2013, specifically between the announcement of Margaret Thatcher’s death and her state funeral. It’s an on-the-nose framing for the story of two lifelong friends whose lives were largely defined by the dead sociopath’s policies: Mansha and Raf moved from Pakistan to Middlesbrough in the 1970s to work in a steelworks specialising in bridge-building, but in the ’80s Thatcher’s policies saw the factories close and the onus put on the workers to make their own way. Raf (Nicholas Khan) largely views this as a success, as he used his redundancy package to start a minicab business; it’s managed day-to-day by Mansha (Kammy Darweish,) who used his own redundancy to pay off his mortgage, but then spent the next thirty years stuck in a rut professionally. So when out of nowhere Raf expresses an interest in selling the business to a larger cab firm, Mansha finally sees an opportunity to be his own boss.

Taking out a loan, he clubs together with his son-in-law Sully (Nicholas Prasad) and cab driver Sameena (Rina Fatania) to get the money for a rival bid for the firm, without stopping to think why Raf is suddenly so keen to offload it.

Even with the fact that the two have been friends for so long that Mansha trusts Raf implicitly, he has to be pretty naïve not to smell a rat. It means the story relies heavily on its characters missing some very obvious warning signs that something’s wrong – not least of all Raf wanting to be paid in a bag full of cash – meaning for a while the audience is well ahead of the characters. Approaching Empty works better viewed as a character piece, the plot largely an excuse to throw these people together and show their similarities and differences. And Pooja Ghai’s production really brings them to life.

None more so than Fatania’s Sameena, whose first appearance is explosive enough to make her an instant audience favourite, and her energy lifts the play whenever she turns up. Sully’s good-natured optimism echoes his father-in-law’s, but Raf’s own son Shazad (Karan Gill) rejects his father’s Thatcherite belief in absolute ruthlessness in business. There’s also the appearance late in the play of Tany (Maanuv Thiara,) a menacing customer who’s got his own sights on the firm, and whose arrival finally shifts the story into a more unpredictable path.

Din creates his characters not just out of strong dialogue but also out of little habits and preoccupations – Raf and Mansha treating the drivers to free coffee from the vending machine has become a kind of ritual. Rosa Maggiora’s design creates a dingy office dominated by a (fictitious – the RV postcode appears to be made up) A-Z map, but it’s still something of a haven from the outside world. The heavy reliance on suspension of disbelief can be distracting, but if the story’s not quite convincing the characters are.

Approaching Empty by Ishy Din is booking until the 2nd of February at the Kiln Theatre; then continuing on tour to Newcastle, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Derby, Coventry, Leicester, Hornchurch and Oldham.

Running time: 2 hours including interval.

Photo credit: Helen Murray.

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