Touring – reviewed at The Brixton House, London
On my train journey yesterday, I was reflecting that it had been many years since I had gone to the far reaches of the Victoria Line and Brixton. Formally the Oval House, I was heading for London’s newest fringe venue now simply known as The Brixton House. And what a well designed building it turned out to be with two theatres, oodles of studio space, meeting rooms and a communal area which was buzzing with life as it hosted a book launch for a local writer and his account of the Windrush generation.
I was there to catch up with (to give its full title) Kabul Goes Pop: Music Television Afghanistan, a show which had been drawing excellent notices since its opening earlier in May. And catch up is right as this was its penultimate performance before travelling to three other theatres in the south east this month.
Based on a true story it concentrates on the period in the early 2000s when the Taliban in Afghanistan had been pushed back following Western liberation/invasion – depending on your point of view. A new sense of freedom and change began to pervade the capital, Kabul.
In this play this is exemplified by the creation and success of Vox, a TV channel aimed at young people and which follows the pattern of MTV. The company hires an enthusiastic new presenter Farook who soon finds himself becoming a local then national celebrity on the youth oriented show he hosts. He has a particular affinity with western pop (he idolises Britney Spears), peppers his presentation with random trivia and dresses like he’s in Kensington rather than Kabul.
In an attempt to further broaden their appeal, Vox then hires Samia as Farook’s co-host.This is a bold move as Samia is representative of young Afghani women breaking free of repressive convention. Although Farook is at first against her inclusion this is more to do with not wanting anyone whatsoever stealing his thunder; indeed, he gradually begins to appreciate her drive and convention challenging behaviour.
Not so their boss who, under pressure from resurging fundamentalism, wants her to observe the rules and know her place. When she appears on screen one time without her hair covered this more or less seals her fate.
Waleed Akhtar’s script excellently conveys the resurgence of hope and a defiant future in the first half and the two actors give convincing performances as representatives of a new order who see having fun as no bad thing. As outside repressive political influences begin to reassert themselves, however, the tone gradually changes to something darker, and a sense of foreboding exerts itself. The first half is essentially there to counterpoint the second as tragedy becomes all but inevitable, but this makes proceedings seem a little uneven and I never really bought the pair’s solid friendship so insisted on by the denouement.
Arian Nik and Shala Nyx are very good as the protagonists and if Nik emerges slightly ahead of his partner that is largely because he has the better of the text to deliver. In particular he produces a closing monologue with real feeling which is a million miles away from the breezily cheery upbeat cocksure character he portrays at the start; the proverbial pin could be heard dropping during this speech.
He also cleverly conveys the character’s underlying insecurities. Nyx on the other hand comes across as more of a type – the rebellious young woman who fights on despite a predictable outcome; as I’ve already indicated though, this is in the writing rather than the playing. The design team have pulled out all the stops for this production creating a day glo ambience which screams yoof TV. There’s particularly excellent use made of video (Gino Green) in a twelve screen wall at the back of the set which both sets the tone and draws the eye.
Kabul Goes Pop was a great introduction to Brixton’s brand new space. It serves to remind us that though the Americans and the media may have moved on to other conflicts, there are still a host of unresolved issues in a country which has survived many crises but still have many to face. There’s a collection at the end designed to help with extricating Samia’s real family from the region. I suspect this is indicative of the sort of supportive stance this particular new kid on the (theatrical) block is going to take – just one more reason to head south.