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You Bury Me at Bristol Old Vic and tour – review

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Moe Bar-El and Hanna Khogali
(© Pamela Raith)

“Cairo is in a state of becoming… We just don't know what it's becoming yet.” Daniel Joseph Monti’s quote about the Egyptian capital stood precariously between the Western contemporary world and more traditional Islamic culture, rings like a siren through You Bury Me. Winner of the Women's Prize for Playwriting, Ahlam's drama follows six Generation Zs as they explore coming of age in a city that is both changing rapidly and stuck in an iron grip. The Arab Spring may hint at the possibilities of a brighter future but choices aren’t simple in a world where being yourself can lead to sinister ends.

Ahlam’s writing conveys the hustle and bustle of a teething city both ancient and modern. Her characters face the usual trials attached to the young; of first love and sexual encounters, of emerging sexualities, of finding a political pulse. In many ways, her whip-smart characters could be found in the likes of Netflix bangers Sex Education or Heartstopper. The difference here though is that taking a virginity or using Grindr may result in criminal charges. They may sing along to Nina Simone’s "Feeling Good", or throw TikTok shapes at house parties but there is something more subversive in discoveries about themselves. This is a city not quite prepared to accept deviations from the status quo.

Yet for all the pep in the characters, there is something a little schematic in the play’s episodic structure. Perhaps because each character is an archetype; the blogger, the promiscuous one, the one struggling to accept themselves, etc; you can see where these journeys are going long before we get to their crux. The play makes its points, but they thud heavily upon the stage and so it doesn’t land the full emotion. We empathise with their issues but we don’t feel them. Its climax (not helped by a short show stop on the night I saw it) doesn’t land with the gut punch it could.

Katie Posner’s production for Paines Plough, opening in Bristol before continuing to Edinburgh and Richmond, also has a slight overemphasis in production which means that although she elicits likable performances from her six actors, they can occasionally be overwrought with a slight soapiness slipping in. As Sara Perks’ pillars begin to come down from above, it feels like the metaphors are being thrust upon its audience.

Still, I particularly enjoyed the work of Yasemin Özdemir as the confident party girl who eventually begins to realise her true feelings for her best friend, Eleanor Nawal’s shy, unsure Lina. Meanwhile, Moe Bar-El and Hannah Khogali generate sweetness and laughs as soulmates who find moving their relationship to the next level difficult in a culture that still censors the salubrious moments in Titanic.

At a little over 90 minutes, it never offers more than a snapshot of this world and arguably it’s trying to convey too much in that running time. Yet You Bury Me remains engaging, an exploration of a city always in transition, but finding it’s still not running quickly enough.


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