Alia Bano
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs

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It could be argued that the Royal Court's primary purpose during the fifty years of its existence has been to nurture budding new writers. Under Dominic Cooke, the hit rate has been high and his latest discovery, Alia Bano, is a star ascending.

The opening play in the 2009 Young Writers Festival is not only incredibly assured but a funny and deeply touching exploration of what it means to be a young Muslim in London today.

When its focal point, Sabrina says that "It's funny what Allah has in store for you", she understates the traumas that she will undergo in the name of love.

Sabrina, played with impeccable judgement by Stephanie Street, is a modern girl who has overcome parental disapproval to become an events organiser. She lives with Zain, a semi-closeted homosexual Muslim, and his white partner, Mark.

For a young woman and a gay man who struggling to overcome cultural issues, this strange ménage is simultaneously supportive and uncomfortably threatening.

Sab is beginning to feel her biological clock and tries the really hilarious Muslim speed dating, an oxymoron if ever there was one, that throws up Elyes Gabel's odious Ali (repeat the last but one phrase without the -oxy).

In a fit of pique at his friend's unpunctuality, Zain forces the fundamentalist accountant Reza, portrayed with great sensitivity by Navin Chowdhry, into Sab's life, as he obliges them to co-organise a fashion show for a Gaza support charity. Their initial encounters are comic as traditional meets modern but soon enough, real affection begins to develop.

This unlikely pairing introduces a dual debate about the nature of Islam in a secular society and also what defines a good marriage partner. The path of true love is never smooth on stage and the writer has to help it along a little too much on a couple of occasions but that is a minor fault in a talent that is already so well developed.

Director Nina Raine does a fine play full justice on the traverse stage designed as a red runway by Lucy Osborne to keep viewers feeling involved. This sets the mood well, and is immensely helped by an exciting soundscape courtesy of David McSeveney.

There is no doubt that we will be hearing a great deal more from Alia Bano. Anyone who can write a sassy, funny play about such a delicate subject and make you care about a series of diverse characters is to be treasured.

Playing until 21 February

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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