Nick Le Mesurier reviews Where I Live and What I Live For at the Shopfront Theatre, Coventry
The question that underpins this increasingly interesting and engaging series of plays, commissioned and performed in the Theatre Absolute’s Shop Front Theatre, Coventry, points to our everyday assumptions about who and what we are and where we belong. The phrase reflects the American writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau’s doubts over the consumerist values of western society, which he saw as tearing us away from a healthy sense of identity rooted in the landscape. He lived in the 19th century: one can only wonder what he might think of us now.
If he were to ask the creators of this fine performance he might find that things have got worse, not better. But at the same time, if this and the previous two shows in this nine part commission of new work are anything to go by, there is hope in the energy and inventiveness they bring to the painful process of exploring the tricky questions of identity in a fast changing world. Where I Live and What I Live For explores the effects of what one might call micro-aggression, as experienced by Saleeha (Raagni Sharma), a young woman born in Britain of Pakistani heritage.
Outwardly her story is simple enough. As a child she moved with her parents to Bradford from London because of the racism they found there. There they settled into a way of life that was peaceful enough, but also exposed and concealed certain strains, external and internal. Saleeha is more open to the possibilities of assimilation, and takes a job in London that represents an exciting life and good career prospects. But other members of her family do not see it that way. To them it’s a betrayal of the core elements of their identity: family, behaviour and language. Saleeha might have moved away from home, but she carries these tensions within her, largely sublimated, until her friendship with Sarah, a lively outwardly friendly white girl in her office, inadvertently brings her into conflict with her (Sarah’s) culture’s assumptions about who Saleeha is and how she should behave. ‘She’s different’, says Sarah, meaning Saleeha’s a Muslim who drinks alcohol and goes to parties and is ‘just like us’. But is she? Whose difference counts?
Raagni Sharma’s acting, through which she alone on stage evokes half a dozen or more characters, is witty and engaging. Justine Themen’s direction allows Saleeha’s vulnerability to be her strength. The staging in this award winning little theatre provides a perfect environment for these complex issues to be explored intelligently and openly. And then there’s the writing itself, by Rabiah Hussain, which sensitively and intelligently explores the clichés of multi-culturalism without ever giving ground to them.