Too Close to Home
Lyric Studio, Hammersmith
Rani Moorthy's drama is a timely exploration of what it's like to be a Muslim in post 9/11 Britain. She aptly chooses to tell the story through an ordinary family: the father, Ghulam (Shiv Grewal) is an immigrant from Pakistan. His two sons, Sayeed (Sartaj Garewal) and Saleem (Dharmesh Patel) are disillusioned with their parents' desperate attempts to 'fit in' and have kicked back against the system in very different ways. Sayeed, the elder of the two, is a devout believer who is heavily involved with his local mosque. His parents despair of his strict ways, believing that he looks down on their liberal attitudes. Saleem, on the other hand, shows signs of being much more militant and is keen to move back to his Pakistani roots.
The action begins with the disembodied sound of Muslim children singing, underpinning the ordinariness of this family. A conversation between Ghulam and his wife Kalida (played by Moorthy herself) punctures the suggested innocence hinting at traumas to come. Ghulam is dogged by nightmares and his refusal to take his medicine causes tension between them. Further foreboding follows with Saleem ominously hiding a rucksack under the family table. Is he what we suspect?
A surprise visit from Sayeed brings unspoken family tensions to the fore. He has not merely come to break fast with his parents during Ramadan. A tip-off from some colleagues at the mosque have led him to believe that Saleem is keeping dangerous company and he has come to tackle him. But his warnings that Allah would not approve of extreme behaviour fall on deaf ears. Saleem makes the distinction that he is committed to Muslims, and not to Islam.
As with most families, each of them has a secret and the other members are often the last to know. Kalida hides her guilty pleasure at taking drama lessons, knowing her son would disapprove; Ghulam shields a traumatic past that forced him to leave Pakistan causing deep psychological scars that trickle down to the rest of the family. And the devout Sayeed is not as pure as he first seems, as we learn when his young Aunt Raziya (Stephanie Street), a confident woman in western dress, pays a visit.
Moorthy's mission in writing the play was to understand without necessarily offering reasons as to why ordinary British-born Muslims might turn to desperate acts such as we saw in July 2005. Through using the five different characters, she has successfully transmitted five different perspectives on the situation. The play certainly explores the feelings of disillusion, isolation and the constant fear of being under attack, both verbal and physical, experienced by young men who subsequently become vulnerable to anyone offering a cultural identity. Ultimately though, I'm not sure that the character of Saleem was fully developed. He seemed a little too normal, too quick with his jokes as though he didn't have a care in the world. Perhaps this was her point, that scratch the surface and you find an ordinary boy underneath. But it stretched credibility that one moment he could be teasing his brother and the next he could take others' lives as well as his own.
It was also a pity that, without warning, the entire family seemed to sink into a chaotic madness once the contents of Saleem's rucksack had been discovered. Instead of being the climactic point of the drama, this mood seemed to undercut it and the characters ceased to become real.
Moorthy (Malaysian-born and from a multicultural South East Asian background) provides a good insight into the life of an ordinary Muslim family. In a secular society, we tend to think that any kind of religion denotes seriousness and lack of joy and she does well to scotch this view by peppering the dialogue with easy humour ("Rap music is Bhangra with swear words"). Her own portrayal of Kalida, the matriarch, hit the right balance of strength and vulnerability. She wasn't above smoking with the westernised Raziya, but she was keen to hide the evidence from her family.
The set, designed by Rachana Jadhav, was effective in producing a sense of claustrophobia, while allowing room for further scenes in the background. The director Iqbal Khan did a good job of keeping the pace up during the two and a half hour running time, though the ending could have benefited from some cutting.
Overall, a brave exploration of a topical subject and perhaps it's too much to expect the answers as well.
Running until 11th November
Reviewer: Bronagh Taggart