Monday 13 November 2023

Theatre review: Blue Mist

Mohamed-Zain Dada's tragicomic Blue Mist, going into its last week Upstairs at the Royal Court, is a story of young British Muslim men set in a shisha lounge – apparently there’s a lot more of these dotted around London than is immediately apparent, serving as an alternative place to socialise for people who don’t drink so don’t have much interest in pubs. It’s not a subculture I was particularly aware of, but then that’s kind of the point: As something that’s a part of Muslims’ lives but not particularly on the radar of most other people, it’s an easy target for right-wing figures who want to build up a narrative of dodgy underground networks breeding terrorists at worst, segregation at best. Hoping to become a documentary-maker, Jihad (Omar Bynon) sees this both as fertile material, and a chance to reclaim the narrative (as well as help save his beloved Chunkyz Shisha Lounge from being targeted and closed down.)

When he wins a radio series commission, he begins to interview his friends Asif (Salman Akhtar) and Rashid (Arian Nik,) as well as Chunky himself (voiced by Sanjeev Bhaskar.) But he’s also recording some of their regular conversations – not always letting them know he’s doing it.

The company who’ve commissioned the documentary – with an Asian-sounding name but seeming to consist entirely of white executives – increasingly come to Jihad with notes on the kind of documentary they’d like him to deliver, and increasingly it seems like he’ll have to make the opposite of what he’d planned: An expose suggesting that young men, including his friends, are using Shisha lounges as places of radicalisation and crime. Telling himself he’s getting his foot in the door and will be able to set the record straight once he makes a name for himself, Jihad goes along with it.

The betrayal works dramatically because Dada and his cast have set up the characters so well through the casual chats that make up the majority of the show. For the most part Blue Mist is an effective comedy, with a great collection of one-liners exchanged by Bynon’s earnest Jihad, Nik’s ambitious gym bunny Rashid, and Akhtar’s Asif largely acting as the comic foil, full of elaborate and dubious anecdotes. Dada’s play works better than any documentary could have at showing the trio as average young Londoners whose frames of reference happen to include shisha lounges and mosques among the fast food shops (at times it feels like this is to British Muslims of Pakistani descent what Barber Shop Chronicles was to black men.)

It also serves as a subtle way of introducing us to the issues faced by the trio – particularly the problems Rashid has in finding work or getting a loan after spending some time in a young offenders’ institution, as well as the psychological impact events around this time have had on him. The comic dialogue certainly feels like Dada’s biggest strength as a writer, sometimes over the plotting – a development that requires the BBC to air a radio show featuring people’s real voices and names without their consent feels like more than a bit of a stretch.

The naturalistic dialogue also wins out over the occasional attempts to give the show a bit more of a surreal flair. Milli Bhatia’s production has mixed results in this: The opening, in which the cast clamber out of Tomás Palmer’s set amid colourful smoke and Middle Eastern music, feels like a 1001 Nights cliché that’s subverted when the lights come up and they start talking about girls and Chicken Cottage. But later music and movement interludes feel a bit crowbarred in. These are mostly niggles though – Blue Mist is a strong playwriting debut that for the most part balances its serious point with very entertaining comic one-liners.

Blue Mist by Mohamed-Zain Dada is booking until the 18th of November at the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Upstairs.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Ali Wright.

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