It is April 2013 and Margaret Thatcher has just died. It is her legacy that forms the backdrop to Approaching Empty, a drama set in a mini cab office in the north of England. Raf, the owner, regrets her passing and hails her achievements; Mansha, his manager and friend, feels exactly the opposite. This is, in microcosm, how the nation itself felt, bitterly divided over the £3.5 million pounds which was spent on the funeral and with battle lines already forming over David Cameron’s recent announcement that the Tory party manifesto would include an “in/out” referendum on EU membership.
Mansha and Raf are immigrant close friends and ex-steel workers who saw that industry evaporate and fear the same for Kings Cars. Raf wants out and Mansha offers to buy the firm. In order to raise the money, he has to take on partners – his son in law Sully and Sameena, one of the drivers. The money is found, the firm is bought but their troubles are just beginning. There has been some financial chicanery and it looks like the bright new hope that came with the trio owning their own business is going to be short lived. Writer Ishy Din is an ex-cab driver and clearly knows his stuff. The atmosphere he captures in the mini cab office looks and sounds highly authentic and the characters he draws are interesting enough to keep the audience hooked. True the piece owes a great deal to David Mamet but it is well constructed with tension rising throughout. The second half, particularly, has real high stakes at its core and by then we have invested in the people who inhabit this world.
Kammy Darweish as Mansha has some of the internalised desperation of Willy Loman (Death Of A Salesman) about him and although we want him to succeed, we realise early on that this is not likely to be the case. Unlike some of the other characters he is really too morally scrupulous and trusting for the cutthroat world of business which he tries to enter. Nicholas Khan as Raf is the polar opposite and deviously manipulates his so-called friend even while warning him that business will prove his downfall.
The performances of Darweish and Khan are measured and assured although it is hard to feel sympathy for the latter even when he reveals what has really been going on. There is strong support from Nicholas Prasad as son in law Sully although the sudden revelation of a ruthless streak doesn’t quite ring true. The best performance probably comes from Rina Fatania as Sameena, the only female presence in this male dominated environment. Sameena has recently got out of jail and (if you’ll pardon the pun) clearly takes no prisoners. Fatania’s performance is spot on and commands attention whenever she is on stage.
Rosa Maggiora’s set is very effective being suitably drab and dominated by the large street map at the back which anchors the play in a particular location. It is the sort of place where none of the furniture matches, there are hastily produced scrappy information messages and a vending machine is in constant use. The characters liberally help themselves to free coffee from this but very little money seems to be put in – which I thought was a nice metaphor for the situation which pertains. Director Pooja Ghai is a steady hand on the wheel (sorry) keeping things relatively sedate in the first half, the more to contrast with the ratcheted-up tension in the second.
Approaching Empty is the second part of Din’s proposed trilogy about the Asian male experience in post-industrial Britain, following an earlier play, Snookered. It also follows a TV version of his play Taxi Tales which was recently on the BBC iPlayer. Unfortunately, I cannot compare as I haven’t seen either but would certainly do so if given the opportunity. Here is an authentic voice telling tales we have not heard before in a muscular and engaging style. All credit to Tamasha Theatre Company for brining Din to our notice.