Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

What Fatima Did...

Atiha Sen Gupta
Hampstead Theatre
(2009)

Production photo

Hampstead should be proud of their latest discovery, a 21-year-old lady who has been connected to Heat&Light, Hampstead's young company, since she was barely a teenager.

It might well turn out that Atiha Sen Gupta's metier is television comedy but her first full-length play, following innovative Daring Pairings at the theatre with established playwrights Roy Williams and Tanika Gupta, has a lot going for it. What Fatima Did ... combines elements of Simon Stephens' Punk Rock, Alia Bano's Shades and, at its most introspective, Oleanna by David Mamet.

The writer's main strengths lie in some laugh out loud comic lines and the ability to recreate the language used by teenagers today. This means that some of the problems resulting from lack of experience seem far less worrying than might otherwise be the case.

The concept underlying What Fatima Did ... should speak to us all. It centres on Fatima, a normal 17-year-old in a multicultural school who is studying for A-levels, while closely hitched to Gethin Anthony's George, a loyal boyfriend who is as blind to religious difference as she is.

After an opening in which the writer strives far too hard to amuse, the play settles down with the arrival of the eponymous but never seen heroine. In the summer holidays, she has taken the hijab or Muslim headscarf, to the amazement of all who know her. The play then follows through the impact of this seemingly minor decision on Fatima's friends, family and classroom teacher.

The effect of a small square of black cloth is truly devastating. The person who suffers most is Fatima's twin brother Mohammed, empathetically played by Arsher Ali. He feels the need to offer protection not only from mystified friends but also an angered, secularised mother and the modern fundamentalist's boyfriend, who swiftly turns into a Little Englander.

While the two Afro-Caribbean classmates, Craig (Simon Coombs) and Stacey (Bunmi Mojekwu), an impossibly dim caricature inserted purely for laughs, are able to watch from the outside, others are more closely embroiled in the cultural upheaval that is barely calmed by Catherine Cusack playing the remarkably patient class teacher.

The undoubted star of the piece is Farzana Dua Elahi as Aisha, a thoroughly modern Asian whose remarkable articulacy and strong feelings, particularly in the play's central speech, suggest that she is Atiha Sen Gupta's onstage surrogate.

Despite getting a credit in the programme, Fatima Bensat fails to make an appearance as the titular star, which ironically symbolises the play's main weakness. While outsiders debate the merits of wearing a hijab, the only person who really understands her own motivations is not allowed to explain them.

This lacuna makes the discussion of extremely limited value, since it cannot be balanced by the views of anybody who can explain why an Asian girl who drinks, smokes and has a white boyfriend should suddenly become what many might ignorantly consider a religious fanatic.

While director Kelly Wilkinson milks the many jokes for all that they are worth, and livens up the evening with a great soundtrack, she might have done considerably more to explore the major issues that are raised but not settled in a promising debut that could have been so much more.

Playing until 7 November

Reviewer: Philip Fisher