BWW Review: DOES MY BOMB LOOK BIG IN THIS?, Soho Theatre
What makes a seemingly ordinary 15-year-old girl travel to Syria to become a jihadi bride? Years before Shamima Begum became front page news, writer and actor Nyla Levy was developing the story of Does My Bomb Look Big In This? after being repeatedly cast as the girlfriend of terrorists in her own acting work and becoming frustrated with the representation of young Asian females in the media. The result is a fresh, vibrant and thought-provoking play, showing now at the Soho Theatre.
The story follows Yasmin Sheikh, rocked by her mother's death, rejected by her father and angry about being subjected daily to Islamophobia, she becomes vulnerable to exploitation online. After suddenly disappearing, she leaves her best friend Aisha to recall her story. In a metatheatre manner, the story is told in a series of flashbacks by Aisha and a variety of roles, played by Eleanor Williams, with various stops and starts as parts of the story is disputed and discussed by the cast.
This method is successful overall, with some very funny moments, but there is often a feeling of over-eagerness from Levy to educate her audience and explain the obvious progress to the radicalisation: racism, family trauma, youthful naivety and the lure of social media fame. The fact that this feels like a familiar cliché is a fault of society, rather than Levy's writing and is depressing in its familiarity.
The production is a very strong three-hander and each actor is excellent in its role. Mingyu Lin's zippy direction has great energy and the production never lets up.
Levy herself plays Yasmin, a damaged, but very recognisable teenager who is fiercely opinionated and whip smart. In essence, her actions are distinctly unpalatable, but the childish innocence and vulnerability that Levy reveals are touching and elicit an unexpected sympathy.
Haleema Hussain plays best friend Aisha; the chemistry and the teasing banter between her and Levy feels incredibly natural and realistic. Hussain is effortless and spontaneous in her acting and gives a charmingly child-like innocence to her character.
School bully and general nemesis Morgan is played by Eleanor Williams. She has a fine talent for swapping roles and accents quickly and sharply. From a snooty shop assistant to Yasmin's pot-dealing brother's friend Josh to jihadi bride Holly from Leeds, her characters are distinctive.
Levy demonstrates an intricate understanding and obvious talent in portraying the lives of young British Asians, using a lot of slang and abbreviation, with excellent dialogue between the two young girls in particular, in both real conversation and through Whatsapp messages.
There is an interesting exploration of life as a teenager and that of a teenager in a Pakistani-British household. However, the story of Yasmin's decision to leave is a huge subject to explore in a couple of hours and some later sections of the production do not quite ring true. Yasmin's complete ease with her new husband who she married the day after she met is not convincing and the end of her story feels too abrupt. There are also small parts written with less consideration than others, such as a rude and overbearing policeman who speaks in the plodding manner of a 1970s sitcom.
There are no easy conclusions to the story, but this is a subject that is far too large for glib summaries. Levy's writing raises more questions than it answers, but has put together a smart play performed by some very talented actors who give a vivid and vibrant representation of teenage life and the issues they face today.
Photo Credit: Soho Theatre