FringeReview UK 2023
Linguistically brilliant, very funny, freighted with critique and truthful. The authentic sub-BBC toxic media is a toxicity we should really talk about. Here, South Asian Muslim masculinity stands as a just rebuke. An absorbing exciting debut.
Written by Mohamed-Zain Dada, Directed by Milli Bhatia, Designed by Tomás Palmer, Lighting Design Elliot Griggs, Sound Designer Elena Peña, Movement Director Theophilus O Bailey,
Production Manager Tabitha Piggott, Stage Managers Catriona McHugh & Charlotte Padgham, Lighting Programmer Jodie Underwood, Costumer Supervisor Isabelle Cook, Hair Stylist Jess Radice, Outreach Coordinator Hannah Ali, Artist Wellbeing Practitioner Lou Platt
Till November 18th
Google Blue Mist and you’ll come across several shisha lounges, where young British Pakistani men smoke the hookah and let the day steam out. It’s a trusted space. Mohamed-Zain Dada’s debut Blue Mist – pacily directed at the Royal Court Upstairs by Milli Bhatia till November 18th – starts in one: sizzling one-liners where three young men reaffirm their long friendship and support each other.
Rashid (Arian Nik) and Asif (Salman Akhtar) push university graduate Jihad (Omar Bynon) to try one more time to realise his breakthrough dream of becoming a journalist. Eloquent and (to the other two’s amusement) willing to slip into RP, Jihad is already realistic.
But edgy car mechanic Asif, alert and too aware of his underachievement, urges Jihad on as Akhtar tenses and flexes his anxieties. There’s a painfully comic scene as Asif recounts a date and asks wrong questions. More sanguine Gatwick worker Rashid, languorous at first but brilliant at one-line op-ed titles and wisest of the three, deftly directs Jihad with ideas Jihad can pitch.
Nik’s performance is one of strength in reserve, countering Akhtar’s pounce and outrage. Wit held back till it lands, punches held till – a trained boxer – Rashid trains the tense Asif. And finally, a fearful rage, but not one that can’t see reason. Dada and the actors create three distinct characters with backstories you’d want to hear.
In every badinage and bromance, nudge into Bengali jokes of aunts and uncles (you need a text, and not every one lands, just most), through London Metropolitan, there’s a bit of Jihad that’s already received a tiny splinter of ice in the heart, if only a uni-grown crystal.
Bynon though carries it with a slightly wary look on occasion. Yet you never feel he’s prematurely judging or standing aloof. Bynon’s skill is inhabiting the agon of a man pushed by media (and beyond, cultural) imperatives to alienate himself from himself, let alone friends.
Winning the competition, nurtured and inspired by his friends, Jihad encounters Fiona (Akhtar) and occasionally Mike (Nik) who start with stereotypically effusive praise then nudge Jihad to storylines and angles around a more toxic notion of South Asian masculinity.
Jihad’s pitch is traduced by Ajami Media’s Fiona (in Akhtar’s wicked drawl). “We had big plans for you, Ji-Had” tells you all you need to know about Fiona’s cultural appropriation, bullying, objectifying and regret the climate doesn’t allow a privileged white woman access to the job herself.
Using intimate knowledge of his friends’ past, Jihad’s pushed to twist and braid glancing biographies to what might earn, in Jamal Mehmood’s closing poem’s phrase, “white applause”. Jihad knows what’ he’s done, doesn’t want his friends to hear the result (Elena Peña’s sound alternating music with treacherous playbacks). The physical reaction of the three at Chunkyz’ is eloquent. Yet Jihad has no idea what he’s wrought beyond that.
It’s a world of imaginaries and realism. So Tomás Palmer’s set – a sunken lime-green shisha square centred with a hookah – is offset by Chunkyz, the owner’s name, neoned up where occasionally Jihad ascends to dream, in Elliot Griggs’ lighting of key contrasts. And where the mist ascends, Jihad’s swirl of blue mist might not prove everyone else’s dream, as gradually in the few we see, he imagines reactions from his friends very different to what falls out.
It’s an energetic production, the three actors skimming round the space, once on scooters, often enacting Theophilus O Bailey’s movements in a gestural ballet broken up in scenes. It’s mostly invigorating, occasionally swerving off somewhere else where it’s fun, but doesn’t seem integral to this play.
The three acts run without a break, somewhere over 90 minutes. There’s a couple of eddies where badinage spirals out. One passage of dialogue is cut down, and (as often in a debut) a scene transposed.
But this is a stunning debut, linguistically brilliant, very funny, freighted with critique and truthful. Though I’m not wholly convinced this Jihad would have gone quite as far as Ajami Media wish him to, the sophistry and prejudice is authentic sub-BBC toxic media. The toxicity we should really talk about. Here, South Asian Muslim masculinity stands as a just rebuke to the Fionas and Mikes of this world. An absorbing exciting debut.