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Multitudes (Tricycle Theatre)

John Hollingworth's kaleidoscopic look at multiculturalism 'often looks like an untamed episode of Question Time'

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
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Asif Khan (Shafiq) and Claire Calbraith (Natalie) in Multitudes
© Mark Douet

Multitudes knows its own problem. It's right there in the title. John Hollingworth's full-length debut is several plays squished into one and, while his aim to show a range of British Muslim perspectives is laudable, folding them all into a single family is, frankly, ludicrous. You end up with the whole House of Islam living under one roof: a second-gen immigrant Tory councillor with a white convert partner, a radicalised teenage daughter and a mother-in-law figure likely to vote UKIP come May. It's quite absurd; way beyond all credibility.

Put simply, Hollingworth tries to do too much - but then, he has to. This is the product of a theatre culture that will only stage so many plays about Islam and, as Multitudes makes abundantly clear, any portrayal of an individual British Muslim comes to stand for them all. To counter that, we need a range of stories, but, if that's to work, it needs a framework in which they can credibly co-exist. Multitudes is an important play, but it is not a good one.

Outside the Conservative Party Conference in Bradford - a pointed piece of political spin - there's a peace camp protesting against another military intervention in the Middle East. Tory councillor Kash (Navin Chowdhry) appreciates the local Muslim community's frustrations, but can't be seen to sympathise by his party leaders. His daughter Qadira (Salma Hoque) is in its midst, growing increasingly radical in both her faith and her opposition to the West.

'Rubasingham's dynamic production mostly screams itself hoarse'

Meanwhile, Kash's girlfriend Natalie (Clare Calbraith) has just converted to Islam, publicly declaring shahada in the local mosque, much to the embarrassment of her prim old-school mother Lyn (Jacqueline King), a coiffed harridan who spends her time gardening, boozing and lamenting a lost Britain.

All these are fascinating figures; their individual stories well worth telling. Together, though, they just veer into almighty shouting matches about multicultural Britain, so that Multitudes often looks like an untamed episode of Question Time that's spun out of David Dimbleby's control. Indhu Rubasingham's dynamic production mostly screams itself hoarse. There's just so much drama: riots, police brutality, radical plots. It's omnibus stuff.

But even if you balk at the overload, it's an illuminating evening. Hollingworth gives every position its dues, letting us appreciate the bigot's worldview as much as the radical's. His play's anti simplicity and spin, damning an opportunistic media, point-scoring politicians, sham diversity and bigots exploiting honest displays of devotion. Things, Hollingworth stresses, aren't always what they seem. Peace protests can be hostile, protective barriers can seem aggressive and sometimes tolerance takes force. Kash has a careful, measured speech to deliver, but nobody's listening.

There are some great scenes - particularly those that shine a light on Islamic practices - and an elegant last note of true tolerance. Chowdhry is engaging as the good politician caught in a shot system, trying to be a good father too. Calbraith conveys Natalie's wholesome naivety and King is hilarious as her battleaxe mother, but without sending her up; you always see the fear and incomprehension behind her bigotry. There's exceptional work, too, from the shapeshifting Asif Kahn and Maya Sondhi as various other members of the Muslim community - but their presence only serves to underline how far Multitudes overstretches itself.

Multitudes runs at the Tricycle Theatre until 21 March 2015