Edinburgh Fringe 2016
A lighthearted trip through the lives British Muslim teenagers based on the story of Cyrano de Bergerac, with a good dose of hip hop, presented by a youth arts group from Tower Hamlets.
Loosely based on the story of Cyrano de Bergerac, Rapture is centred on a group of Muslim teenagers in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, who share a love of hip hop and are struggling with the challenges of growing up in a multi-cultural environment.
Cool, popular and extrovert, Sam is an increasingly successful hip hop performer, who raps about her struggles as a young British Muslim. Nobody is meant to know, but it is actually her quiet, conservative, hijab-clad best friend AJ, the daughter of the local imam, who writes all the lyrics. As music producer Al begins to take an interest in Sam, believing her to be the author of the hip hop tracks, the two friends have to decide whether to come clean about AJ’s role.
Celia Sellah gives a compelling and convincing performance as Sam, both in terms of the acting and the rapping, which really lifts the show from being just another amateur production, and there are strong performances too from Shah Yusuf Ahmed as AJ’s brother Ray and Chafia Bouakkaz as Al’s bully of an ex-girlfriend, Zehira.
The actress playing AJ on this occasion (there are two sharing the role) made a sparky and likable AJ, but tended to speak a little too fast for clarity. She also had a slight speech impediment, which oddly was never acknowledged, whereas it would have been very powerful to incorporate that into the play as a hurdle she needed to overcome to be able to perform her own work.
Bearing in mind this is youth theatre, there was some unevenness in the performance, with a bit of speeding and mumbling and some lines sounding a little too scripted, as well as the odd minor mishap of dropped props and fluffed lines. It’s nothing to seriously detract from the overall enjoyment, but there are a few parts where the dialogue was hard to make out, such as the speech by Ray’s radicalised friend, where a little more pacing and clarity would have helped.
There was good use of humour in the performance and good awareness of the audience, who became involved as the spectators at the hip hop show, a crowd being handed radical Islamist flyers and the subject of gossip by the girls as they sit in a café pointing out people they fancy.
The staging of Rapture is simple but effective, with a static backdrop of a woman’s eyes behind a veiled face, symbolising the theme of what lies behind. There are few props and little movement, with the dialogue and music key. At the start of each scene a scarf with a symbol is hung over the backdrop as an indication of where the scene is taking place, but actually this is mostly unnecessary, with the props and the dialogue making clear what is happening, and it looks a bit messy.
The costumes have nice touches as well as room for further development. The three girls in Al’s ex-girlfriend’s bullying gang are all clad in matching pink sequined headgear, two of them baseball caps and one a hijab, in a neat touch that identifies them as being a group, but also highlights the culture clash and the different clothing choices. There would be room to develop the visual symbolism more in the other costumes.
One notable weakness, though, is AJ’s outfit. While it is clear from the dialogue that AJ is meant to be very conservatively dressed – the girl gang member wearing the hijab refers to her as looking like a terrorist – she is actually wearing a mini dress with longs splits up the side, and at one point flashes the audience as she tucks her mobile phone into the top of her tights. Given the significance of her conservative Muslim appearance to the plot, she really needs to be more fully covered.
Music is a significant element of Rapture and there are good choices of both live and recorded rap with words that echo the themes of the play. Such is its importance though – it could almost be considered an extra character in the play – I would have liked to hear even more of it, both hip hop and other types of contrasting music or sound, such as a call to prayer, to be used between scenes and in the background, to really bring depth to the cultural clash and the dialogue.
While not a professional production, Rapture is a very enjoyable lighthearted and funny trip through a range of issues facing teenagers, from the pull between faith and popular culture, of liberalism and fundamentalism, between parents’ wishes and personal dreams, and the downright awkwardness of teenage crushes and the nastiness of teenage girls. It’s a nice piece of original youth theatre and well worth an hour of your time.