Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Review: The Infidel, Theatre Royal Stratford East

“I've got some money in ISAs, 
But none of it goes to ISIS”

With songs about fatwas, foreskins and fundamentalism amongst many others, it is clear that this musical adaptation of 2010 film The Infidel has no truck with the easily offended and rightly so. Initially one may be a little disarmed by the frankness with which the opening number makes the simple but telling point that Muslims are real people too but the warm encouragement to laugh along with them soon becomes irresistible as the wickedly observed sense of humour in David Baddiel’s book and lyrics overcomes any lingering reservations. 

It helps that lead character Mahmud Nasir is so wonderfully, whole-heartedly appealing in a cracking performance from Kev Orkian as a typical everyman cab driver who swears, enjoys a beer and yeah, happens to be Muslim. This relaxed, modern approach to Islam extends to his family – Mina Anwar’s fantastic Saamiya and newly-engaged son Rashid, the highly likeable Gary Wood – but Mahmud is thrown a curveball when going through the effects of his deceased mother, he discovers adoption papers that indicate he was actually born Solly Shimshillewitz to Jewish parents.

What follows is a journey of discovery as Mahmud questions what this means for him and his identity, has something fundamental changed within him? Naturally he doesn’t share the news with his family but rather finds an unlikely ally in Jewish cabbie Lenny who becomes his sensei in learning all about Judaism, Orkian’s developing buddy relationship with the excellent Andrew Paul here is a thing of wonder, the essence of the play boiled down to two guys working out their differences and similarities and making each other laugh in the process.

The challenges don’t end there though as Mahmud discovers his birth father is still alive but about to die in an old people’s home protected by a rabbi who won’t let him through the door until he’s proved he’s enough of a Jew. And his son’s fiancée’s mother’s fiancé just happens to be a radicalised Islamic preacher who will only accept true believers into his family. And here Baddiel is able to let loose on the polarised intolerance of sections of both communities, all communities really, as Mahmud battles through North London bar mitzvahs and East London religious rallies in a bid to find himself.

Crucially, the show never takes itself too seriously – has anyone else seen gangsta rap in a niqab recently?! – and the fun that it does make of its targets is always affectionate – Alex Andreou’s impressively bearded imam calls for a “fatty-fatty-fatwa” in one of the evening’s catchier numbers. And Erran Baron Cohen’s score is undoubtedly better on the comic side of things – the benefits of wearing a burka, the unfortunate names that some people are given – the calls for deeper emotion don’t quite have the same resonance but nor do they really need to, the next big laugh is almost always mere moments away, often coming from Melanie Marshall’s brilliant multi-roling.

The overall feel of Baddiel and Kerry Marshall’s production has a homespun quality to it, Nick Barnes’ functional set design and the potential for wobbly doors was well exploited by the cast on the night I saw it, and this just adds to the appeal. It may not be the polished product of a blockbusting West End show but in amongst the raw edges is an honesty that can be hard to find on Shaftesbury Avenue and consequently it makes for a more affecting and intelligent piece of theatre. 

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 2nd November


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