Ishy Din’s cleverly crafted, playful exploration of four young Muslims’ lives in Britain is full of surprises. The balance between the unremarkable, faintly depressing image of four working men having a ritual piss-up in a Northern bar and the much messier, unstated cloud of failure, resentment and guilt that draws them together year after year gives the piece a nuanced tension.
The premise: a taxi driver, a halal butcher and two budding professionals meet for their annual pool game to honour the memory of a dead friend. As the play opened, and three men started guffawing over ‘pakis’, kebab vans and white guys, I must admit I flinched a little and had the worrying thought that I might be in for a hackneyed comedy night of cultural clichés, or worse, some transparent ‘critique of racial barriers in Britain today’.
Thankfully, I’d got it all wrong. Filtering through the familiar, though entertaining bravado (‘My spunk is so fertile I’m gonna leave it to science’) and wild social generalisations, is a very sharp and refreshingly irreverent take on contemporary British, and Muslim, culture. What’s more, the relentless flaring up of personal tensions allows for the highly defensive characters to offer us a glimpse of their most deeply-rooted frustrations whilst not threatening the play’s realism. Clearly, there’s been a lot of effort put into creating a realistic, representative set-up. A typical pub-red plush carpet, bar stools and constant, perhaps unnecessary, chart hits playing in the background are completed by a real bar downstage, whose white barman silently reminds us of the fact that the characters are part of an ethnic minority within their environment, an issue that is subtly dealt with between the lines of the play, but is never crow-barred in.
Muzz Khan’s deliciously crude, puffa-jacketed, loud-mouthed taxi driver ‘Shaf’ nevertheless lets an impressive emotional and moral complexity leak through his macho persona, and promptly steals the show. Khan’s swaggering physicality and aggressive drawl capture the audience with ease, whilst not compromising his portrayal of Shaf’s extreme vulnerability. Asif Khan provides hilarious light relief as Kamy; while very occasionally bordering on hammy, he likewise manages to convey an earnestness that is at times very moving. Neither Jaz Deol as the less hardened character of Billy nor Peter Singh as the smug Mo are given strong roles, but they are both consistent, and avoid two dimensional foil territory. Snookered is remarkable in its honesty and humour, but also in its ability to go beyond ethnic and racial ‘issues’ to explore the diverse ways in which we express frustration, vulnerability and guilt. It’s a shame it was only on for two nights.