In a north London shisha lounge, three 20-something Muslim men meet to talk. As aspiring journalist Jihad (Omar Bynon) tells us, this is their pub, their place to unwind: “Some people drink pints, some people smoke pipes.”
Their friendship is thrown into turmoil when Jihad enters a competition for aspiring audio documentary makers, using a suggestion by Asif (Salman Akhtar) and Rashid (Arian Nik). They think he should focus on Chunkyz, the lounge, and tell the story of its characterful owner and government threats to shutter his business under the guise of health and safety. The idea’s a winner, but the documentary begins to take a very different turn at the behest of a smarmy investigative reporter.
Mohamed-Zain Dada’s play touches on a range of urgent themes, notably the identity of young Asian men who, like many of their generation, feel squeezed to the margins both economically and culturally. Rashid has been tarred by a youth offence in which he attacked someone who was racially abusing his family. He’s an aspiring businessman who can’t get a bank loan. Chunkyz is a vital point of connection – as Jihad astutely observes, “migrants channel their longing into the spaces we end up calling home”.
It’s profound but narratively naive. I struggled to buy the idea that Jihad would sell his friends out so brazenly, also compromising his journalistic ethics by secretly recording them and then editing those conversations to spin a false narrative. It leaves the story feeling incredulous, which is a shame as it’s a subject ripe with promise.
However, Milli Bhatia serves up a stylish production that is laced with visceral choreography from movement director Theophilus O Bailey. There is also some neat and surprising use of music; at one point we get a rendition of “Just a spoonful of Muslim makes the news go down”, complete with peppy dance moves. It opens with the impressively tight ensemble emerging from Tomás Palmer’s modish sunken booth set with balletic grace.
As with Tyrell Williams’ excellent Red Pitch at the Bush Theatre, this is a drama that shows the importance of public spaces for our increasingly isolated urban youth. It’s encouraging to see another dramatist turn their attention to what is lying behind and fuelling this worrying generational split.