Bush Theatre, London – until 6 August 2022
It’s not often that the east London suburb of Ilford gets a mention on stage. Although it’s a place where I learned much of my own stage craft (the Kenneth More Theatre) it’s not as arts friendly as it once was and so it’s been left to diametrically opposite west London theatre the Bush to premiere a new work set in Redbridge by Ambreen Razia – who is actually from south London. Her play Favour looks into the lives of a trio of women from the same family but of rather different generations. It does so with a vigour that is at times quite intoxicating and although it is 95 minutes straight through, the time fairly flies by.
The play has been commissioned by Clean Break, a production company which focuses on women’s experience of the Criminal Justice system and how their families can best manage when offenders are returned to society. This is what has happened to Aleena who has been away for two years for crimes, at first, unspecified though it clearly isn’t for the drink driving that’s been publicly announced. She has left her mother Noor to raise her teenage daughter Leila; the former is a traditionalist who insists on strict rules being adhered to.
Cue a clash of temperaments as Aleena has spent time “finding herself”, adopted some free spirited ways and has clearly returned quickly to the alcohol which probably contributed to her downfall in the first place. Noor advocates homework and the hijab while Aleena wants to be Leila’s best friend plying her with forbidden fizzy drinks and snacks and taking her for a manicure. The confused 15 year old is caught in the crossfire and becomes a pawn as the two older women manoeuvre for control though both, it has to be said, do so from a position of love and what they genuinely believe to be right.
Apart from a slightly over hurried ending and a misjudged fantasy sequence (the couch suddenly becomes a chair in a beauty parlour) the piece ebbs and flows nicely, crackling with tension as the generations collide and move towards a resolution. Along the way various secrets come to the surface and character motivations are revealed many of which revolve around misguided attempts to protect the family unit. Leila, in particular, finds the strength to stop living her life for others and start to make her own decisions. In that sense Favour also becomes a coming of age story; the two older women also do some “growing up”. And Razia is canny enough to leaven the tension with a healthy dose of humour particularly in the character of “auntie” Fozia who busybodies in and out though it transpires that she too has her own dark secrets.
The latter is played winningly in comic monster style by Rina Fatania; this went down very well with the audience, particularly enjoying the moment when she gets her comeuppance in a way that means costume supervisor Sabia Smith probably has to work overtime. The rest of the quartet are right on the money too with a particularly winning turn from Ashna Rabheru playing her second distraught teenager this year after her equally compelling performance in Hampstead’s The Animal Kingdom. Renu Brindle’s generally still portrayal of Noor masks a steely determination to control while Avita Jay brings plenty of energy, not to mention a great deal of physical flexibility, to the erratic but charismatic Aleena. Although a little on the large side to be truly credible as a council flat, there’s a well-designed set from Liz Whitbread which makes interesting use of different levels. The rather clunky transformations in the fantasy sequence could have been better managed but then that whole sequence rather jarred I felt.
Focusing on people who are generally under represented on stage (women who are ex-offenders from a Moslem background) the play has a good deal going for it and mostly seizes its opportunities without, thankfully, being preachy. Razia’s writing is assured and co-directors Róisín McBrinn and Sophie Dillon Moniram have generally done a sound job of bringing the piece to life. It’s play which would be right at home in its original setting but, all the same, was worth travelling right across London to see.