Theatre Review: Product, Arcola Theatre and Hurling Rubble at the Sun, Park Theatre

Bharti Patel and Ragevan Vasan in Hurling Rubble at the Sun at Park Theatre

Bharti Patel and Ragevan Vasan in Hurling Rubble at the Sun at Park Theatre

In the run up to the 10th anniversary of the London July 7th bombings, it’s inevitable that the day’s catastrophic events will be commemorated and analysed in art as well as in the media.

The events of that day are obviously part of a wider picture, one that begins many years before the planes flew into the World Trade Centre on 9 September 2001 and one that grew even wider following Britain and America’s invasion of Iraq.

As these things have a habit of doing, I saw two plays in one week that were loose comments on the aftermath of 9/11 and 7/7, threaded together by the West’s struggle to understand and respond to these attacks.

Mark Ravenhill’s Product is a blistering, gaspingly funny pitch perfect satire on Hollywood’s cultural and racial attitudes. His monologue sees an agent, Leah, desperately pitching a toe-curlingly awful script to a disinterested A-list actress we never see. The script, ‘Mohammed and Me’ is the story of Amy, a 9/11 widow who falls in love with a Muslim man on a flight and a chance taxi-encounter. The script, told through Amy’s eyes, is culturally and religiously insensitive and wincingly crude with a plot so ludicrous it makes Lord of the Rings look like a documentary.

Product staring Olivia Poulett, Photo: Richard Davenport

Product staring Olivia Poulett, Photo: Richard Davenport

Leah is played beautifully by the impressive Olivia Poulet who manages to capture a woman on the brink while never letting go of Leah’s obnoxiousness and self-belief. Her job isn’t an easy one in a theatre as small as the Arcola where she is eye-ball to eye-ball with a front row that is alternatively amused, stunned or fast asleep (it was a matinee).

I thought Poulet’s performance combined with Ravenhill’s scorching script was a fine duo and while its original message has been somewhat diluted over the last 14 years – Hollywood hasn’t been quite as insensitive as Ravenhill predicted – there’s still enough bite in it to be a gleeful 50 minutes of theatre.

Over in N4 at the lovely Park Theatre, Avaes Mohammad’s two plays Hurling Rubble at the Sun and Hurling Rubble at the Moon are playing in tandem. They work individually, although by all accounts they are better seen consecutively. Time restrictions meant I only saw Hurling Rubble at the Sun, Mohammad’s fact-based fictional account of suicide bomber Taufeeq ‘T’ Sultan, a character loosely based on Hasib Hussain, the man who blew up the number 30 bus in Tavistock Square on 7 July 2005.

The play hinges on the central performance, and Ragevan Vasan who plays the Blackburn-born bomber is excellent and elevates what is a rather confused story to a gripping drama. Mohammad’s script is asking some big questions – what drives a person to commit mass murder for a cause – that he never really answers. T is neither devout nor worried about local social injustice, so it’s a big leap for us to believe he’s a man ready to blow himself and others up on behalf of children in Iraq. But maybe his muddled motives are the point, perhaps he’s simply a disenfranchised young man from Lancashire who sees terrorism as an outlet to express himself rather than say, a creative writing course.

Hurling  Rubble at the Sun is a 60 minute play carved into three distinct acts. It opens with ’T’ cooking explosives, rapping away to a tune on the stereo. He flirts with his girlfriend on the phone and hums to himself as he packs his day’s work in his backpack. Next we’re in the Sultans’ house where T is late for dinner and his Amma is furious. But it’s not about dinner, is it, as we’re reminded several times. Despite some fine acting from Vasan and Bharti Patel as his mother, this act is flabby and rambling. We’re led to assume Vasan’s father is violent towards his wife, that the mosque her father built is vandalised on a daily basis. And we go round in circles, Mohammad’s script chasing its tail until it gives up finding an answer and instead reverts to Amma feeding T with her own hands as she did when he was a boy.

The final scene, however, ramps up the tension and is heart-racingly arresting, helped by a pared down direction from Rob Dixon. T is now on the bus where he finds himself sitting next to a call-a-spade-a-spade old-school Londoner, brilliantly played by Nicola Duffett who brings a Cockney humour and pathos to the scene that helps ground the play in the human cost of T’s decision. The ending brought tears to my eyes, not a reaction I thought I would have had 15 minutes earlier when Amma was shoving curry into T’s mouth like a mother sparrow.

There’s a lot of good stuff in Hurling Rubble at the Sun, not least the performances that nicely paper over the cracks in the writing. That’s not to say that Avaes Mohammad’s script doesn’t have something to say and it’s a brave piece of writing by the playwright who is virtually a lone northern Muslim voice in an arena crowded by white southerns. Who’s to say Mohammad isn’t going to be as powerful a voice in British theatre as Mark Ravenhill one day?

Hurling Rubble at the Sun | Park Theatre, N4 | Until 6 June 2015

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: The Rivals, Arcola Theatre

Iain  Batchelor as Captain Jack Absolute in The Rivals at the Arcola Theatre

Iain Batchelor as Captain Jack Absolute in The Rivals at the Arcola Theatre

As Jane Austen showed, Regency Bath with its petty snobberies and bored, gouty bourgeoise was ripe for satirical picking. Richard Sheridan takes Austen’s gentle satire and cranks it up to 11, poking fun at the newly wealthy middle classes and minor aristocrats in The Rivals, a play brimming with playfulness of language and cocky bravado. The Arcola Theatre’s revival of it is every bit as fun as it should be, brightening up a filthy afternoon in Dalston (no easy feat).

Upper class Lydia Languish’s (Jenny Rainsford) head is full of romantic novels and longs to suffer for love like the heroines in the books she borrows from the circulating library (“vile places indeed!”). Happily for Lydia she  falls in love with a man she believes to be an impoverished officer, who goes by the hugely unromantic name of Ensign Beverley, who she is plotting to elope with.

Of course her posh relations, of which she only seems to have one, her aunt Mrs Malaprop (yes, her of using words in the wrong context fame) really won’t stand for her niece gallivanting off with a lowly red coat. In reality, Mrs Malaprop (Gemma Jones) actually has nothing to worry about as Beverley is actually the far richer – and much more plausibly named – Jack Absolute – who is having an absolute ball teasing his beloved with his great ruse (remember, these are the days before Pointless).

Jack’s wheeze hits a major stumbling block when his rather severe father, Sir Anthony Absolute (Nicholas Le Prevost), informs his son that he has arranged a marriage for him. Furious, Jack quarrels with his father before learning that he’s fated to be married to none other than… yes, Lydia Languish. Well I never!

But how will he get round the slippery problem of Lydia loving his poorer alter ego? And there’s also the problem of another real life rival, the rather boarish Bob Acres (Justin Edwards) who is determined to see off this upstart Beverley. Cue plenty of farcical mix-ups that encompass their small society including the romantically jealous Faulkland and his exasperated fiancee Julia, impoverished Irish gentleman Sir Lucius O’Trigger and several servants including Lucy who stirs the misunderstandings up to a roiling boil.

The story is delightfully and brilliantly daft, Sheridan’s genuinely funny script sends up 18th century society like a Jane Austen after a bottle of Port. As sparkling witty as Sheridan’s script is though, this play needs fine comic actors to pull it off, any hint of self-consciousness would render The Rivals toe-curling embarrassing to watch. The cast in Selina Cadell’s production tackle the story with bravado, pulling out the humour with some brilliantly judged campness and arch-knowingness. Gemma Jones (Spooks’ evil Connie) has fun with a pink-haired Mrs Malaprop and Jenny Rainsford is dramatically pouty mouthed as the spoilt Lydia. Justine Mitchell impresses as Julia who must convince her silly fiancé that she does love him with many flowery speeches. Iain Batchelor is an exuberant Jack Absolute brimming with cheeky charm and a convincing cockiness. You want to cheer when all’s well that ends well. Which of course it is.

The Rivals is on until 15th November at the Arcola Theatre. For tickets and more information visit www.arcolatheatre.com.

by Suzanne Elliott