Approaching Empty

Ishy Din
Tamasha, Kiln Theatre & Live Theatre
Live Theatre
to

This is the first full-length play I’ve seen on Tyneside with an all-Asian cast: five male, one female. So how come at times it reminded me of Chekhov?

It’s something to do with that self-destructive nature of close-knit families and friends. Here the setting is not a small estate far from Moscow, but a small taxi firm in an unnamed northern town.

The firm is owned by Raf (Nicholas Khan), managed by his friend, Mansha (Kammy Darweish) and the developments are played out against the preparations for Margaret Thatcher’s funeral in 2013.

To Raf, Thatcher was a heroine, boldly sweeping out the deadwood to prepare for a brave new age; for Mansha she was a traitor, cold-bloodedly destroying entire communities and industries. Despite these fundamental differences (the early spelling out of which sets the tone for the whole play) the two have remained friends for 40 years since arriving as teenagers from Pakistan.

But changes are afoot. The company is under threat from a bigger rival, Fleet Taxis, and Mansha, seeking to create his own destiny, offers to buy it from his colleague.

Eventually, he decides to bring into the new partnership Sameena (Rina Fatania—the play’s only female) and Sully (Nicholas Prasad—Mansha’s son). This sets in motion a whole chain of events, betrayals, double-dealing and duplicity that slowly sucks in and drags down other friends and family, Shazad (Raf’s son, played by Karan Gill) and Sameena’s coldly calculating brother Tany (Maanuv Thiara).

Now I think I’ve got all those links right, but it can prove a mite confusing, because the plot’s shady financial dealings unravel at times to slightly confusing effect.

The play is written by Ishy Din, highly praised for his first theatre piece Snookered and now much in demand. He was actually once a taxi driver on Teesside, being one of the few contemporary playwrights (metaphorically) to get their hands mucky, as against remaining soft-skinned through their university and creative writing degrees. The likes of Tyneside's Tom Hadaway are much missed.

And the author can certainly write. This is a tragic human story but played out against a clash of ideologies where the Devil is sometimes given the best tunes.

The single setting of the shabby minicab office and the lack of much visual innovation means it could work just as well on the radio and occasionally I suspect I am just slightly being preached at, a suspicion weakened by the overall power of both the script and performances. In the second half, it can prove a bit relentless and ever darker. Not many laughs to be had here.

The Asian nature of the play is rarely highlighted. Barely a mention of the native Pakistan, nor of ethnic or religious matters.The line from Tany, "in the old days, you’d put a turban at my feet, but you’ve not got a turban" is a rare exception. More to the fore is the religion of greed, as in: "there’s no good or bad, there’s rich c**ts and poor c**ts and I know which gang I want to be in" (Tany again).

A couple of characters do give the "As-Salaam-Alaikum" greeting, but it’s a strength of the work and its direction that it never feels the need to play the easy ethnic card. In this, it marks an important new generation of theatre works and a coming of age. Director Pooja Ghaid invests the whole thing with muscular intent (I think I know what I mean by that…).

Joint theatre productions are becoming commonplace. Here it’s triple—Kiln Theatre (formerly Tricycle), Tamasha and Live Theatre. I fully understand in these straitened times the need to pool resources, also the 'united we stand' philosophy. The barbarians are at the door, after all.

But three theatre companies putting out one play where in the past three plays may have been possible is a quite severe reduction in output and a disturbing trend we need to be aware of.

What does that play title mean, you might ask? It’s the phrase taxi drivers impart back to the office as they’re about to drop off their latest fare.

Reviewer: Peter Mortimer