FringeReview UK 2018
Directed by Richard Speir. Designer Khadija Raza’s and lighter-designer Geoff Hense’s Venn-like circles of neon variously uplight from a charcoal-grey ground, also lit up in different colours from above in a broken circle. Anna Clock’s sound is discreet except for one crunching moment.
Terence Rattigan once said that novelists think they can be dramatists, but poets can be; they possess innate economy and (often) conversational rhythm. So it’s no surprise to find that Rabiah Hussain’s astonishingly assured debut Spun, in the Arcola’s small Studio 2, is the work of a poet. Clarity and pizzazz telegraph from the opening, as one-syllable comebacks like ‘just’ catch the elliptical banter or squabbles between two very bright young women growing up in London. In 2005, life’s about to get a lot more Islamophobic, racist – and uniquely here, class-ridden.
That’s the genius and universality of this play too. Hussain writes stingingly of what it’s like to be working-class as well as Asian.
It’s not a concept at all familiar: that’s partly as Hussain explains in her introduction, she didn’t sense it herself till she moved towards what she terms in Spun ‘Central’ – what the City becomes if you’re born in Newham. ‘Where are you from really?’ is something both risk-averse Safa, conformist 2.1 aspiring to a permanent office position, or sassier Aisha, with a first but drifting into teaching assistant jobs at her old school, take for granted. It’s something Hussain experienced herself though that’s the nub of this play.
Directed by Richard Speir, the focus is unflinching: designer Khadija Raza’s and lighter-designer Geoff Hense’s Venn-like circles of neon variously uplight from a charcoal-grey ground, also lit up in different colours from above in a broken circle. That’s the set: save two chairs, a bedsheet and headscarf. Anna Clock’s sound is discreet except for one crunching moment. Everything’s fixed on Humaaira Iqbal’s Safa and Aasiya Shah’s Aisha, who move about, shift chairs and articulate comic physicality (from the start: Aisha’s bunking over the wall to retrieve shoes for the more nervous Safa).
They’ve known each other ‘like forever’, from infancy. Aisha lost her mother and despite doing drugs, drink and snogging men is thus both less inhibited (without her mother’s restraining hand) and more calendrical, stuck with rituals of the past. Her teacher mother was strong on political rights. Aisha’s never forgotten that even drifting in as a TA which she swears she’ll leave. It’s important Safa observes their Thursdays, responds with ‘fuck off’ or similar to Aisha’s more plaintive ‘love you’, turns up on time to Aisha’s mother’s anniversary. Aisha, the leader, needs Safa more. Safa though is leaving her behind.
In moving on Safa can’t understand why Aisha’s so stuck, despite being the rebellious one. Safa’s colleagues Helen Tim and Kim patronize her with ‘you’re different’ from other Asian women and we’re left in no doubt as to their attitude.
But Aisha does persuade Safa to bunk off on one day: it’s Aisha’s birthday. It’s also 7/7, and Safa who feels sickened by the news (so they don’t meet up) is now looked at askance by her colleagues: she knew not to travel that day. Aisha’s attitude at school becomes politicised watching girls being regimented to integrate, fit in. They’ve seen the racism hitting their brothers, arrests, beatings-up. Aisha’s told to go easy, but becomes a beacon. And she adopts her mother’s bright 1970s headscarf. ‘You’re not observant’ the incredulous Safa rebukes her.
At one horrendous moment leaving for Aisha’s most important anniversary, Safa’s loaded with photocopying; the copier jams, she’s told she must attend the end-of-project drinks where for once she says ‘same’ to everyone else’s dry white, though she never drinks. And is still not give the promotion she’s promised, but a lowly permanent PA instead. The fallout with Aisha’s chilly to say the least.
A climax is wrought, and Asiha’s challenging Safa with what her colleagues really think: ‘smelly oik’ is taken from real life, leaving wounds. Safa’s reaction, verbally and physically has to be seen. It’s a soul-snatching clincher. The end leaves Hussain with a few choices she refuses to make. An epilogue from their childhood rounds off a sure-footed, fleet and vibrant drama.
The prim Safa’s taken on a desolate journey of self-realisation by Iqbal, full of inward doubts and switching on an acquiescent mouse-voice every time she submits to Helen, Kim or the rest. By contrast Shah’s deeper discovery of identity avoids stacking cards: Hussain also spells out the pitfalls of being too much beholden. In a different way, Safa’s jibe that Aisha isn’t her mother is partly just. In another, it brings everything into question.
Spun recalls another (essentially) two-hander about two girls growing into and out of chances: Elinor Cook’s masterly Out Of Love, recently mounted at the Orange Tree. There the sinewy minimal dialogue was allied with a switchback of chronology Spun doesn’t need; forward momentum’s all here. But Spun has something of Cook’s qualities; that’s saying a great deal.
There are moments where I wondered if some reactions were out of proportion, but these don’t remain. Though we’d miss the sheer physicality of this adroitly-directed piece, it’s no disservice to Hussain to suggest this could work as a radio adaptation, specifically Radio 3’s Sunday drama, lasting around eighty minutes. It’s exciting to think what Hussain might do with larger forces, but I’m guessing she’ll always have the nerve to pare to essentials. A spellbinding, assured debut.