From the moment one of the black sixth formers, reporting on his uncle’s “new citizen” and allegiance test, opines that the Poles are the new gypsies, you know you are in for a feisty new play on racial attitudes.
What Fatima did was come back from the school holidays wearing a hijab, or Muslim head scarf, but why has she done this? And what will she say to her oh-so white boyfriend George?
Sure enough, there are references to the BNP, Jack Straw’s tactful remarks on his young Muslim constituents and the less tactful ruling in French schools. But the small miracle of twenty-year-old Atiha Sen Gupta’s debut on the Hampstead stage is that it keeps you guessing. And the slight tease in the play can be gauged from the fact that the actress playing Fatima lists her previous roles in the programme as Abigail in Abigail’s Party and Eva Smith in An Inspector Calls.
The speculation among her peers, her twin brother Mohammed (Arsher Ali) and her irate “liberated” mother (Shobu Kapoor) is fuelled in a series of tautly written scenes in the classroom, the local pub, the school playground and loos, and at a party for the twins’ eighteen birthday where Stacey (Bunmi Mojekwu) comes dressed as Beyonce, Craig (Simon Coombs) as Michael Jackson and George (Gethin Anthony) as a football-style patriot wrapped in his saintly namesake’s flag.
The point is not that this is a brilliantly accomplished piece of work (though it’s not far off) but that it is fresh, lively, and addressing a young audience not often made to feel at home in our theatres. Sen Gupta has come through Hampstead’s Heat & Light’s Young Company and it is a bold, if long overdue, move of the retiring artistic director Anthony Clark to present such a play in the theatre’s fiftieth anniversary season.
Kelly Wilkinson’s production, cleverly designed at ground level with neutral grey towers by Becky Gunstone, is beautifully cast and played with pitch perfect precision. George’s offstage attempt to remove the hijab results in a furious onstage fight, while Catherine Cusack’s peace-broking middle-class teacher, treading a fine line between tolerance and dismay, qualifies for joining the debate by having an Iranian husband.