Friday, 7 October 2022

Theatre review: Brown Boys Swim

It's nowhere near as hard as trying to figure out what to see at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe itself, but there's still something overwhelming about trying not to miss anything you shouldn't once the hits start coming to London a couple of months later. So I don't really try to as a general rule, but it certainly seemed this year as if Karim Khan's Brown Boys Swim was a show getting a lot of positive attention, and when I spotted John Hoggarth's production for Oxford's North Wall company doing a run at Soho Theatre I grabbed a ticket before it sold out completely. It follows two teenage boys who've been friends since primary school - at first, perhaps, because they were both in a minority as Muslims in Oxford, but the friendship is by now a deep and genuine one. Mohsen (Anish Roy) is the quieter, more studious one, whose grades are good enough that he's considering going to Oxford University - although is it because of its prestige, or because it's the local university and he wouldn't need to move away from home?

Kash (Varun Raj) is the cockier, more adventurous one, who does observe his culture and religion but is equally keen to integrate with their classmates - especially if it means seeing his crush Jess in her bathing suit at her 18th birthday pool party.

"Pool" is the tricky word there, as he's told Jess they can swim, when neither can, so Kash suggests they learn together. For him the party's the ultimate goal; Mohsen eventually agrees because he remembers a local South Asian boy who'd drowned a couple of years earlier, and he wants to break out of the stereotype that their community can't swim. Cue some very entertaining scenes as the two make their first visits to the local pool - I particularly liked the suggestion that Mohsen should teach himself to swim using laminated instruction sheets, then pass the knowledge on to his friend.

There is of course a more serious undertone about the experience of growing up brown in a very white town, even about whether there's a wider societal reason for South Asian communities being left behind in things like learning to swim. Khan isn't here to labour any points though, instead we get understated little moments of unpleasantness as the boys get looked at a bit too intently by the other swimmers at the pool, followed by security while shopping for bathing costumes, or when it turns out Jess only invited them to the party because she assumed they're drug dealers.

I wasn't sold on the way a final twist is handled - it comes in a bit abruptly and feels unclear - but otherwise this lives up to the hype. James Button's simple but multifunctional set of a blue tile wall and a couple of benches, along with Sita Thomas' movement direction, help convince us that the actors are swimming in a very dry attic room in Soho, and Roy and Raj bring their characters to entertaining life. The play's got some serious points to make and it makes them, but its focus and the most memorable element of Brown Boys Swim is the comic but genuine friendship at its heart.

Brown Boys Swim by Karim Khan is booking until the 15th of October at Soho Theatre Upstairs (returns only.)

Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Geraint Lewis.

No comments:

Post a Comment