Simon Ward reviews Combustion at the Arcola Theatre
If presented with the premise of a four-hander play set in a Bradford garage, one might demur. Adding in an English Defence League thug would scarcely make it seem more palatable. Yet Combustion explodes such expectations. It is a triumph: a savagely funny, thought-provoking piece, which lingers long in the memory.
There are no strawmen or easy caricatures here. Even the racist gets to have his say, before gradually being won round to a hopeful future where Bradford may actually be ‘for peace’. Put like that it may sound too pat, but the performances and Asif Khan’s writing transcend the simplicity of the plot.
We meet the Muslim characters on the brink of what they hope might be Eid. They are Shaz, the garage owner, played by Beruce Khan, his friend Ali (Rez Kempton), whom he employs more out of loyalty than because of his good work, his ace mechanic but apparent simpleton Faisal (Mitesh Soni) and his sister Samina (Shirheen Farkhoy). They all in their different ways face the challenges of walking the tightrope between their Muslim heritage and the British life they live every day. The backdrop of the Rochdale paedophile ring exacerbates ethnic tensions. There is the constant possibility of family members forcing them to go ‘back’ to Pakistan, a country which they have probably never seen, on the grounds that it is ‘safe’ to be a Muslim there. As Shaz points out, suicide bombers and drone strikes don’t exactly make for a safe environment. At least in England you can build a mosque.
It takes less than two hours to watch the ironies of their lives unfold. The play rattles along, sometimes literally, with excellent sound engineered by James Hesford. Samina is feisty and full of life, but still has to acknowledge the authority of her brother as head of the household since their father’s death. Shaz seeks to uphold the best of both worlds by encouraging Faisal to stand up for himself against his family; in the very next scene he berates his sister for her political activities against his advice because she is putting herself in danger. But she is also, of course, removing herself from his control.
Design by Mila Sanders is inventive, and Nona Shepphard’s direction is crystal clear- the bare walls of the Arcola make a perfect backdrop for this workplace. There is a cage-like structure at the back of the stage covered in the usual detritus of a garage, where we see (and don’t see) the characters change costume and inhabit their roles before taking the stage. A simple set of tables and chairs is used imaginatively.
If the play ends on a moving image of hope, the strains of Jerusalem ringing out, it is hard-won and precarious enough to be believable.
Combustion plays at the Arcola Theatre until June 24th.