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: Shutters, Park Theatre

 Shutters, Park Theatre

Shutters, Park Theatre

Shutters at Finsbury Park’s year-and-a-bit-old Park Theatre is a triptych of plays that highlight women’s journey over the last century.

The short plays, directed by Jack Thorpe Baker (two of 30 minutes, the final one of 50 minutes) are loosely linked by themes of family, community and Americanness (as well as their femaleness), but otherwise are stand alone set pieces that, despite some heavy subject matter, tell neat, witty, largely captivating stories.

The first, Cast of Characters by Philip Dawkins, is a deconstructed play seen from the backend, the framework a run-through for a play we never see. It’s dizzingly fast-paced and takes a while to untangle, the all-female cast oscillating between the many roles of both genders while an unseen playwright’s dismembered voice occasionally interrupts their read-through with her asides. Essentially it’s a play about rehearsing a play, but it’s far more fun than that sounds and almost certainly a lot more entertaining than the play that’s been rehearsed that centres on a dysfunctional family very much in the vein of American literature.

The conceit allows for a playfulness that the heavy subject matter of the play being read-through wouldn’t have allowed. There are excellent performances from the all-female cast, in particular from Nicola Blackman who brings a comedic touch to a miserable MS sufferer stuck in a love-less marriage, and Lucia McAnespie as the chirpy 80-year-old Bernice.

The second play, Trifles, downshifts in mood and hurtles back in time to the beginning of last century and a rural community rocked by an apparent murder, suspicion falling on dead man’s wife. Written by Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Susan Glaspell, Trifles is often hailed as one of theatre’s first feminist plays. A hundred and two years after it was written, Trifles may have lost much of its shock, horror feminism, but its themes are still all too familiar.

Trifles sees three puffed-up men stumbling about trying to find clues in a suspected murder case, mocking the two women present, one a friend of the suspect and the other the sheriff’s wife, for concentrating on the seemingly trifle – the condemned woman’s needlework, her preserved fruit, THAT jewellery box. Of course, their feminine observations unearth far more than the men’s arrogant jackbooted stomp. The play weaves together as beautifully as a well stitched piece of patchwork and is genuinely thrilling.

The final play, Brooke Allen’s The Deer is, despite the inclusion of a talking deer (a very endearing Joanna Kirkland), the most conventional. A messed up bad boy, his college professor channelling Robin Williams as he tries to get him to dream bigger, his pretty older sister (an excellent Yolanda Kettle), herself stuck in a deadend job in a small town. That things don’t end well is never in doubt, but the ending has a neat little twist that adds a less predictable element.

The six all-female cast members are all highly watchable and engaging in which ever role they’re playing – and their American accents seem pretty faultless to me – while Jack Thorpe Baker’s direction is slick and well-paced, the tempo of the three play format working well in the intimate Park 90 space. The premise – showcasing the female experience over the past century – may sound heavyweight, but Shutters carries it lightly, but no less seriously making for an entertaining, interesting evening.

by Suzanne Elliott