The Great Extension

Cosh Omar
Theatre Royal, Stratford East
(2009)

Production photo

The successor to this dramatist's The Battle of Green Lanes, which the Theatre Royal staged so successfully in 2004, is a very different piece, though it too has a political agenda which is set from the start by a radio news bulletin reporting Barrack Obama's visit to Turkey. The titular extension is to enlarge the glamorous apartment (designer Yannis Thavoris has done wonders on a Theatre Royal budget) of first-generation Brit Hassan. It could as easily be the extension of other cultures into British life and the growth of other ethnic groups in Britain's population.

Hassan's Turkish father, Mr Hassan, is making a fortune out of property and his son's lifestyle is financed by their wealth, though young Hassan doesn't put much effort into his job of collecting rents, even when he is sober enough to remember it. In the words of his houseboy Sanjay, Hassan is 'a case of acute episodic paroxysmal alcoholic amnesia,' and he can't remember, or he is trying to forget, what he did last night.

Hassan is discovered in the dark, a quivering wreck huddled under a grand piano with a rug over his head when Sanjay appearing on the balcony above in a short chic red dressing gown with immaculate maquillage and lovely legs and puts the lights on. This is not your average suburban household!

Hassan remembers that he's been to a stag party (his cousin's, another Hassan) and thinks there's a woman upstairs in his four-poster bed. He has a hazy recollection of being married to her by a bearded Imam in a mosque. It can't be true; Hassan is not the marrying kind. His relationship with his transsexual houseboy is not really explored but is obviously suspect, though he does seem to be essentially an active testosterone charged heterosexual. He is not religious either and his father is entirely secular and devoted to the memory of Kemal Atatürk.

The pair are joined by David, the building contractor for the extension, a nice reliable chap - this isn't a builder-client disaster plot - and then the next-door neighbour who claims it his land being built on, which he probably has as good ground to believe as that emigration is changing Britain, something he equally resents.

While they argue, a silent, hijab-wearing woman emerges onto the balcony above - the bride. She's contacted her family, who haven't seen her for some time, and they turn up, a strictly Islamic father, brother and sister in a burka. They are soon followed by Hassan's father and mother whom Sanjay has telephoned. How's Hassan going to cope with all that?

I'm not going to tell you any more. The first act winds things up, though there are a few moments that didn't quite work for me., and the second act really takes off in the most wonderfully non-PC way.

This is a comedy with a political punch that leaves a body on the carpet. We don't need every loose end tidied up but the way Omar deals with this is, to say the least, a bit of a cop-out. At times the comedy verges upon farce - there's a lovely moment when a loaded drinks trolley is deftly directed out of devout Islamic gaze and with two bedroom doors and a bathroom on the balcony as well a other entrances the set itself is already set up for one, and the first act I think would gain from being pushed a little more in that direction. With a Union Jack cushion in the centre of the set and a door bell that plays Parry's setting of 'Jerusalem' it would be a very little push indeed

Omar himself plays Hassan and he has written himself a pivotal part, even if he has not given himself the best lines. Raj Ghatak's outrageous Sanjay could easily steal the show if he didn't know just how far to take it without tipping the balance, and Jacob Kruchefski's David is another beautifully gauged performance. Jack Chissick breathes life into what could easily be just a cartoon blimpish next door neighbour and Ruby Visaria achieves a remarkable transformation as the newly married Jamillia while Sharona Sassoon also produces surprises as her burka-clad mama and Ben Bennett adds a lift with his multi-culturally informed policeman.

This is a production full of strong, uninhibited performances and except for a slightly awkward opening, which may well be different by the time you get the see it, Kerry Michael's direction keeps it moving as it springs its surprises with lots of really funny moments -- like the Kippah under the construction worker's helmet that reveals to the gathered Muslims that the wearer is a Jew and other visual point-making, Sanjay's camp repartee and sectarian name-calling that you don't have to be a student of religion to understand.

The play gets a sort of coda with the introduction of yet another cousin Hassan (Akin Gazi), young and glamorous and newly arrived from Turkey. This could be the beginning of a whole new play. But that's something for the audience to imagine for themselves, unless Omar is already writing it.

At Stratford East until 14th November 2009

Reviewer: Howard Loxton