Tag Archives: Issam Al Ghussain

“Gentlemen” at the Arcola Theatre

Originally scheduled to open just before the pandemic lockdown, Matt Parvin’s play about ‘woke’ culture at a university is still topical and dramatic subject matter. Irreconcilable positions seem depressingly current and can make for good dark comedy. But the gap caused by Covid has made the arguments here feel worn and, regrettably, the piece ends up predictable.


Laddish Greg is the obvious bully. Parvin spends time on the character’s working-class origins and as a result creates the most believable figure. Taking the role, Charlie Beck manages to convey that Greg is neither as clever or as funny as he thinks he is – a neat manoeuvre – while suggesting both his determination and vulnerability.


Trying, and failing, to handle Greg is the college welfare officer, played by Edward Judge. He’s an ineffective liberal it is too easy to mock, and there are too many jokes about him being close to the age of the students. It’s a great credit to Judge that he handles the weak humour so well and makes the character sympathetic.


The twist is that Greg’s victim, Casper, a bisexual student he is said to have assaulted, has a plan. Here Issam Al Ghussain goes from “waiting meekly” to downright scary and he does both well. In a move to strike fear into the hearts of Daily Mail readers, he declares war: “When I get triggered, I pull a trigger”. He complains to the college, organises protests and speaks to the press…all to prove a point.


Of course, some exaggeration is necessary. It might be bold to air common complaints about political correctness. Or show offensive tropes about bisexuality. Presumably the idea is to feed into fears in order to expose them. But when plot and prejudices are silly there isn’t much challenge to the audience. Unfortunately for Parvin, the ideas here don’t surprise anymore. 


There are some clumsy stumbles, too. I don’t believe the boys would undress in front of the welfare officer (or be allowed to) – you can see the plot point too soon. The consideration of class is uneven – we need to know more about the other characters. And class would be a concern (however superficial); it’s tough to imagine Casper wouldn’t pepper sentences with the word intersectionality. In general, it’s hard to believe all three – whose intelligence is established – wouldn’t work out what was going on from the start.


On a positive note, careful performances do the actors credit. Richard Speir’s direction is confident and unrushed. And a scene after the interval, a dream sequence for Casper, is intriguing: here is the only suggestion that Casper is motivated by fear. Otherwise, Casper is just angry. And it is a great shame there is even the chance we can dismiss the character so simply.

Topicality is good and challenging views is admirable. And playwrights aren’t obliged to provide answers. But Gentlemen has too many silly fears and familiar tropes as targets to be effective, while it fails to raise its own, new, questions.

Until 28 October 2023


“Hide and Seek” at the Vault Festival

Tobia Rossi’s play won the Mario Fratti Award in Italy and this UK premiere features strong performances. The play has intriguing moments but is plagued by oddities and a lack of detail. The conclusion, especially, fails to convince dramatically.

The scenario is neat. Bullied at school, Gio runs away to a cave and then starts a relationship with a classmate, Mirko, who discovers him by accident. But even simple sets-ups need elaborating; how small (and backwards) the boys’ village is could be evoked better.

It might help to know how old both boys actually are. They seem very naïve for teenagers. A plot to pretend Gio has been kidnapped, including a gruesome scene of mutilation, is close to silly. The inconsistency comes as Rossi spends a lot of time making Gio smart, including giving him a pretty grown-up sense of humour. 

Then there’s the boys’ sexual fumbling, which gets giggles but is also uncomfortable. As well as a poorly timed first kiss, it isn’t clear if the more confident Gio is supposed to be seducing his simpler friend.

While the bullying both Gio and then Mirko experience is horrible, it doesn’t seem commensurate with events. OK, both boys are troubled… but that needs to be made a lot clearer. Maybe Gio really is as weird as his classmates think? Or as hungry for attention as his social media fixation suggests? Again, the problem is that Gio is so obviously our hero that a lot of tension escapes: darker sides of both boys aren’t elaborated enough.

Director and translator Carlotta Brentan can do little to avoid problems in the script, although an oppressive score from Simone Manfredini could have been abandoned. There are good performances from Issam Al Ghussain and Nico Cetrulo to enjoy, though. The former does especially well with Rossi’s dark humour. Unfortunately, the play’s ending shadows their achievement.

It isn’t Rossi’s fault that having miserable ends for gay characters isn’t what we’re about nowadays! When Gio wants to come out of his closet, sorry cave, the result is dire. Escalating the play into a tragedy needs a surer hand and stronger intimations for the audience. Homophobia and bullying are serious topics with awful consequences but, when Hide and Seek aims to becomes a tragedy, the shock and surprise are too much. 

Until 23 February 2023


Photo by Mariano Gobb