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Testing the Echo

David Edgar
Out of Joint
Tricycle Theatre
(2008)

Production photo

When it was originally conceived by playwright, David Edgar and Max Stafford Clark's Out Of Joint, it seemed highly likely that Testing the Echo was expected to be a good old-fashioned political expose of the treatment of immigrants in the United Kingdom with particular reference to the difficulties that we have with Muslims and vice versa. That and the kind of Verbatim Theatre which has distinguished both this company and the Tricycle Theatre in recent years.

Strangely, when it is at its best and most humorous, this hour and three quarter long verbal collage is like a reworked version of The History Boys, with British citizenship the unlikely goal rather than an upmarket Oxbridge college.

Those strands demonstrate both the strength and the weakness of a work that spends far too long imparting information, albeit often strangely fascinating to any lover of Trivial Pursuits, and much too little being an actual play with some kind of forward narrative thrust.

There are far too many different ideas bandied around, ensuring that there is no real focus. The main topic is the silly set of tests that are required to enable immigrants to get British citizenship, without which they are liable to get kicked out of the country.

David Edgar and his director Matthew Dunster have great fun in spraying marvellously ridiculous questions at the audience and poking fun at those governmental bigwigs who have set them. The point is well made that very few of those sitting in the auditorium, primarily middle-class and of British extraction, could have answered more than 70 to 80% and many might have struggled to get even half right.

This idea is then filtered down to focus in on a number of different groups heading towards a handshake and certificates from Robert Gwilym's Mayor, watched over by a photo of the woman that every one of them has been told is Head of State in a country with no constitution or President.

Teresa Banham plays an idealistic college lecturer who takes an argumentative class through their paces, struggling equally with Jasminka, an upmarket Kosovan tart played by Farzana Dua Elahe, and Egyptian Nasim (Sirine Saba). The latter is a Muslim fundamentalist whose literalist attitudes almost drive the idealistic educator mad and practically cost her a job that seems more bother than it is worth, especially when she has to defend her political position over a tedious dinner party.

Miss Dua Elahe pops up again in the role of Muna, a little girl torn between helping her much-loved stepmother (Kirsty Bushell's Tetyana) with her exams and blocking her from obtaining a status that might permit her to leave a bullying common-law husband.

A third grouping is also memorable, Mahmood (Sushil Chudasama) as a Coke fiend kidnapped to go through cold turkey and Muslim brainwashing by his friend Jamal (Syrus Lowe); while a fourth consists of a bunch of manual workers who have great fun at the expense of Chong (Ian Dunn) a simple man who has no notion of British sensibilities unless football is involved.

This ethnic mix is then stirred up and along the way a handful of serious ethical questions are asked, especially with regard to British attitudes to Muslim fundamentalists. Eventually, in a rush, Edgar brings together his main protagonists to enjoy a heart-warming ceremony in which all differences are forgotten and, like Alan Bennett's history boys, each gets his or her moment in the limelight with an assurance of safety if not happiness for the future.

While some judicious cutting and greater concentration on the serious political issues would have been welcome, Testing the Echo certainly puts a team of dedicated actors through their paces and, by the happy ending, you do care enough about some of the characters to feel that the evening has been reasonably worthwhile. You will also be a cinch to win Trivial Pursuits the next time that you play.

Playing until 3 May

This production was reviewed by Kevin Catchpole at Salisbury and Sheila Connor at Guildford

Reviewer: Philip Fisher