I Wanna Be Yours
The Bramall Rock Void, Leeds Playhouse
Zia Ahmed’s I Wanna Be Yours depicts a young couple from first meeting, through faltering first dates, into intimacy, self-interrogation, and big decisions.
First staged in 2019 at the Bush Theatre, the play is entirely structured around this relationship, between Haseeb (Usman Nawaz) and Ella (Eva Scott). He (like Ahmed himself) is a spoken word poet from North London who works to commissions and delivers workshops to schools. She is a Yorkshire-born actor, now based on the other side of the Thames, where (as Haseeb reminds her) the transport links are poor; he complains laughingly that it takes him as long to get to Ella’s flat as it does for her to get home to Hebden Bridge.
With jests like these, and countless references to song lyrics and films, the play does a great job of quickly and lightly establishing an endearing relationship between its two characters. The writing is laced with lines of shared cultural knowledge which, combined with likeable performances from both Scott and Nawaz, establishes a rapport and set of shared reference points and in-jokes that help to capture authentically the feeling of a flourishing romantic relationship.
The play captures particularly well what it’s like to navigate a burgeoning romance in the modern world. It is built upon snippets—some barely what you’d call scenes—of interplay between the two. These take place at house parties, restaurants, visits to each other’s flat, but also in transit. Haseeb and Ella chat while gripping a Tube handrail, or text or call each other to make plans or just to continue a running joke.
Getting the Megabus, going to festivals, meeting the parents, learning about each other’s family lore and cultural background—the snippets are plausibly authentic, and would even risk being mundane or mawkish were the writing less zippy and humorous or the performances less warm than those of Scott and Nawaz. The physicality is restrained: the actors do not feel physically intimate, and the writing indeed leans towards this, working as it does in the contemporary idiom of slipping frequently and fluidly between first-person described action—"I kiss you"—and dialogue. But there is a real sense of care between the two under Sameena Hussain’s deft-eared direction, and it is consequently easy for the audience to get drawn into caring for the relationship.
The flip side to the show’s structure is that it can feel bitty or—about three quarters of the way through—meandering. The vignettes don’t so much build to a climax as combine into a picture of a relationship then show us a possible end-point: a jigsaw rather than a dot-to-dot. Or, more aptly, a poetry collection rather than a piece of prose fiction. The writing doesn’t quite contain discrete poems as such, but it does flow smoothly between a lyrical everyday dialogue and slightly more heightened solos, with loose but rhythmic rhyme schemes drifting in and out throughout.
The elephant in the room, here, is that Haseeb is a Muslim whose parents were born in Pakistan, and who is faced by the ‘unbearable whiteness’ of being in the spaces his and Ella’s jobs take him: poetry readings, theatres and the patronising quizzing of her family, friends and strangers. A couple of the more directly poetic sections of the text comment on the resilience demanded by these daily microaggressions, and on the vicious irony of being questioned on "what he is doing to address the problems in his community", given what we know about the problems of what is never called ‘the white community’.
Ahmed’s script gives the metaphorical elephant an imagined real-world manifestation, which drives the play to its climactic moment. This comes a little abruptly—but then perhaps there is no other way to end a story like this. All love stories come to an end, one way or another, but it’s hard to imagine a resolution to the tensions and psychological violence which Ella and Haseeb’s romance tries to transcend. A simultaneously uplifting and challenging play, then, given a satisfyingly tender-hearted production.
Reviewer: Mark Love-Smith