Arcola Theatre, London – until 24 June 2017
In Hassan Abdulrazzak’s Love, Bombs & Apples, Asif Khan became a mesmerising shape-changer, adopting different Muslim and Jewish personas as varied as pugilistic to down-trodden. Taking up the writing reins himself, Khan now takes a deeper look at one of Abdulrazzak’s characters, a disaffected Bradford youth, to explore what it feels like to be part of the Bradford Muslim community constantly having to prove you’re neither a putative terrorist nor a paedophile `grooming’ under-age girls for sex.
Khan, part of the Tamasha Playwrights and BBC Writers Room 8 Script scheme is clearly up-and-coming. His characters have energy, bite and an unmistakeable sense of authenticity making his a hugely important new voice and giving us a much needed portrait of the contemporary gulf to be bridged between growing up dominated by one culture when your own community follows quite another.
Set in a vividly ordinary place of work, a car mechanic’s garage cleverly evoked with wire grilles and tables by designer Mila Sanders, run by one Shaz (Beruce Khan), he’s a typical young Muslim entrepreneur, religiously conventional and over-protective when it comes to his younger sister Samina (Shireen Farkhoy). Shaz also has two work colleagues, the firey Ali, (Rez Kempton) ready to assert Muslim pride with physical retaliation and the more gentle, Faisal (Mitesh Soni).
Amidst the male joshing Khan sets up between these three, he introduces first the tension of the hijab-wearing, mould-breaking Samina, about to strike out in a completely different direction, and the sudden appearance of an EDL supporter.
How the three men cope with Samina’s protest-for-peace approach, and she with Nigel Hastings’ putative racist, Andy, forms the emotional and philosophical heart of Combustion. Add in a couple or three extra subplots and for a while Combustion is in danger of overheating on themes.
But there is enough here to make Khan’s Combustion one of the most welcome and important postcards from the Muslim edge with his attempt to sort out the difficult strands that go to make up accommodating to society or falling foul of it. Confronting hate, anger and alienation, he yet still manages to find optimism and hope in the future.
Samina, an echo of the true event earlier this year when a young woman, Saffiyah Khan confronted an enraged EDL supporter in Birmingham at one of their rallies in the Spring, is a true catalyst for change. She it is, in Nona Shepphard’s telling production, who emerges as the play’s heroine enabling her brother and Faisal to move forward with a positive spirit, to their and Asif Khan’s great credit.