Tag Archives: Clean Break Theatre

“Favour” at the Bush Theatre

Six months and 40 shows into 2022, Ambreen Razia’s new play is the best thing I’ve seen so far. A deceptively simple story about three generations of one family, the script is hilariously funny and deeply moving. Four unforgettable characters are brilliantly realised by a talented cast. 

First up for praise – Favour has a decent plot. Beginning with Aleena’s release from prison, we want to know why she is late? What has happened to her mother, Noor, and daughter, Leila, while she has been away? And why was she in prison? Family secrets and feelings are revealed with skill under the careful direction of Róisín McBrinn and Sophie Dillon Moniram. It isn’t all doom and gloom either – there’s a magical fantasy scene for Aleena and Leila with “sugar and TV allowed” that is winning. As for why we care so much – the answer comes with Razia’s excellent characters.

With Aleena, Avita Jay portrays a mercurial woman with mental health and addiction problems who is both dangerous and inspirational. The role of Noor is taken by Renu Brindle, who shows us a figure of fraught dignity gradually transforming. The youngest character Leila is exceptionally well written with a mix of smart remarks and naivety that is wry and emotional. Ashna Rabheru, who takes the part, is fantastic, especially in scenes that show the character suffering from anxiety.

Rina-Fatania-and-Renu-Brindle-in-'Favour'-at-the-Bush-Theatre-credit-Suzi-Corker
Rina Fatania and Renu Brindle

There’s a fourth character too – Fozia, played by Rina Fatania – a busybody whose barbed comments get the audience howling with laughter. Fatania provides brilliant comedy though Fozia is more than a clown (note her departure from the stage).

Presenting different ages could be a clumsy shortcut for conflict.  But Razia is careful to provide depth so that Favour is continuously stimulates. And Razia’s intelligence is seen as the play tackles serious ‘issues’ too. It is notable that this is a story of working-class women and that the play is firmly rooted within a London Muslim community. Furthermore, the play is co-produced by Clean Break (whose members include women with lived experience of the criminal justice system). But this is all addressed with a matter of fact, fresh, feeling; none of these factors define the characters, no matter how much they must negotiate life with them.

Instead of problems, the love that comes with motherhood is the focus of these women’s lives. No matter accusations to the contrary, you never doubt the love the family feel for one another, and this drives the play. Razia has created a dramatic space for powerful reflections and truths. That the youngest character takes the lead is a suitably upbeat conclusion to a superb show.

Until 6 August 2022

www.bushtheatre.co.uk

Photos by  Suzi Corker

“[Blank]” at the Donmar Warehouse

This collection of 100 scenes, with the instruction that they can be selected at will and performed in any order, is “a challenge and an invitation” to theatre companies. It’s a startling idea that makes for a big book and shows playwright Alice Birch’s prodigious ability. It is also a suitable celebration of co-producer Clean Break Theatre’s 40 years of working alongside women involved with the criminal justice system. The treatment for the many situations they must have encountered is, by turns, heart-wrenching and thought-provoking. So what has this production, directed by Maria Aberg, created in response?

First, some brilliant performances. From names this theatregoer loves – such as Jackie Clune, Jemima Rooper, Zainab Hasan and Thusitha Jayasundera – to performers I’ve not had the privilege of seeing before, the acting is stunning. Tackling characters who all have a connection to crime, from the most serious to unnamed incidents, undoubtedly makes the show grim. But what’s important is how far-reaching and detailed repercussions are shown to be. Highlighting the children and relatives affected, as well as the women convicted, makes every character encountered a figure to be accounted for. As the 16-strong team moves from role to role, in scenes that are often very short, their achievements are breath-taking.

Much of [Blank]’s power come from its variety. Thirty scenes are delivered here, so we get to see many different women and hear multiple stories, from foster care, including one from the many scenes written for children (the young performers are fantastic), to an adult reunited with a mother freed from prison (providing stand-out moments for Kate O’Flynn and Lucy Edkins).

Shona Babayemi and Jemima Rooper in BLANK
Shona Babayemi and Jemima Rooper

Remember, teasing themes or coherence out of the texts is a choice Birch offers. Part of her point is to challenge conventional narratives about women ‘like this’. Aberg’s response is a light one; a couple of scenes share characters, but this feels like a coincidence. Rosie Elnile’s design and projections of the performers bind the play visually (although I am agnostic about the need for them). And there’s a nod to our specific location in the boldest scene that roots us in Covent Garden with the Donmar’s particular clientele: in a dinner party that turns into a disaster, Birch shows ruthless skills as a satirist and Shona Babayemi gives an unforgettable performance.

Aberg is wise to have faith in Birch’s short sketches – they are packed with emotion and drama. It can be frustrating to leave the action so quickly, and dizzying to think of how many scenes could be developed into full plays. That’s not the aim, and the writing is too precise for it to be the case – each scene stands fully formed. Rather, being overwhelmed by this breadth of – frankly awful – experience is a statement. This feels like a whole other kind of theatre. The play could be mounted anywhere, with any cast, making it a real treasure – full of possibilities and lives that we don’t normally see. While these women maybe invisible to some, [Blank] goes some way to filling that void.

Until 30 November 2019

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photos by Helen Maybanks