BWW Review: OUT OF SORTS, Theatre503
35 years ago, I learned to navigate the language and mores of the middle class, what Nancy Mitford referred to as U and Non-U English (albeit shifted a notch in the social hierarchy). It wasn't easy, a discomfiting experience that always reminded you that you were at the table under sufferance, from soup to nuts, no matter how hospitable your friends might be.
So much more the case for the woman who speaks Arabic at home and U English at work and at her house-share, who doesn't want to eat the kebabs at home nor the cashew milk in the house fridge, who isn't Middle-Eastern enough for some nor Western enough for others.
Zara is that woman and the unmeshed gears that drive her life seize up one fateful night as she dumps her long term boyfriend Jameel and later hides from a dinner party full of the high-flyers from university and work. Zara meets neither her parents expectations of a high-achieving Muslim daughter nor her friends' expectations of a high-achieving tick in HR's diversity box. It's clear that her low self-esteem is metastasizing into pathological illness long before she confirms it.
Danusia Samal's play won the International Playwriting Award 2018 and you can see why. It is contemporary, ambitious and bold in its conception and execution. The issues it covers will resonate with many in its audience (this one noticeably younger than most in London), but that approach loads more work on to the dramatic element of the script - and it can't always bear the weight.
The performances are excellent, standouts being Zara's parents, Myriam Acharki, all calm wisdom as a mother who saw such things in her youth that nothing can faze her today; and Nayef Rashed as the taxi driver father who is angry at London and the lot it gives him, but not so angry as to let it get in the way of his hopes for himself and his family.
As our protagonist, Zara, Nalan Burgess demonstrates the mental burden of living two lives - Rebecca Wood's clever set and Tanuja Amarasuriya's pacy direction leave no room for confusion as to where Zara is at any given time. She squirms and wriggles, literally and metaphorically, but she never fits into any specific space.
Oznur Cifci gets the rebellious teen sister, Fatima, right, though quite how someone as perceptive as her, even at 17, could not see her sister's pain, stretched credibility. Emma Denly does what she can with posh housemate, Alice, but, even when we get a bit of perfunctory backstory, Alice remains more caricature rather than character.
Alice's boyfriend, Anthony, is beautifully played by Claudius Peters, but it is simply impossible to imagine his behaviour as it plays out in a critical - maybe the critical scene. The issue drowns out the dramatic imperative to move the plot forward, something that, along with a surfeit of exposition, is often a flaw when the playwright has things to say.
I guess you can take what you want from the ending - some might say it's full of hope and happy, others that it's a disappointing message to send women seeking to make their way in an often hostile world - and some might say that some of the play's targets are ill-chosen (veganism relentlessly presented as a shallow fashion choice), but they are matters of taste.
There's probably a tighter, more character-driven play, somewhere inside Out Of Sorts and maybe that'll emerge later in Samal's career, but what we have now is an interesting, committed but somewhat flawed play, that doesn't quite add up as drama, but does give voice to those so often so absent from the London stage. Though, of course, they are all around us the moment we step outside.
Photo Helen Murray