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Ironing Out
The Blue Elephant Theatre
23rd June 2019


Basel Zaraa, Tasnim Mahdy and Sara El Sheekh

Photography provided by the Blue Elephant Theatre

Although a reference to the shop where most of the action unfolds, Ironing Out feels like a rather apt name for a show that’s looking for its own wrinkles and attempting to smooth them out. (Do you see what I did there?) It’s a devised piece that is both blessed with the heady ambition and cursed with the disjointedness that typically accompany this collaborative method of making theatre. A work-in-progress, but an interesting one, for sure and with potential to become something slicker. Alleyway Radical Theatre boldly attempt to tackle racism, criticise capitalism, entertain and move and only in just over an hour. This is a company that clearly wants to change the world and that level of passion and enthusiasm always sparks something worth watching.

We follow a drummer (Basel Zaraa) as he searches for his friend Ahmed in London, armed with no other identifying details than his name. Whilst his search for his loved one feels like it should be the heart of the story, it is soon supplanted by everyday life in an ironing shop, with calm, quiet Iron Man (Jazzar) stealing focus immediately. It is Iron Man’s interactions with the drummer and indeed the rest of the community that attract our attention. The drummer brings tragedy and perhaps in a previous version he was the lead, but here, it is Iron Man who actually intrigues us more and ends up being the glue that keeps all the company's different ideas stuck together. He brings coherence to the script.

Iron Man’s friendship with his neighbour (Lisa Maeda) is one of many little things that hook us. On the face of it, the two players seem to have nothing in common other than proximity and a love of chess. There is some strong characterisation in their unspoken camaraderie, which contrasts with the lack of depth in scenes with Dilai (Shamma), whose proclivity for the dramatic leaves us unable to assess her interactions with others and to realise when she is being light-hearted and when she is truly weeping. Shamma’s spoken word, however, packs far more power, with the actress conveying far more credible emotion in those moments. Those are the scenes where she delivers.

Indeed, repeatedly breaking up the story with Arabic spoken word is both pleasingly melodic and pleasingly disorientating. The drummer finds himself unable to easily track down his friend, in part due to his difficulties communicating. Reciting something beautiful in a language with few shared connections with our own tongue allows us to better relate to his confusion and desperate search for answers. He doesn't know what is going on. We don't either. A nice touch of enforced empathy that breaks down barriers.

The tone flipflops between the comedic and serious - whilst this sometimes feels jarring, there are some well crafted moments. Although probably wholly unnecessary, a solo scene with Mona (Sara El Sheekh) allows us to appreciate the actress’s natural delivery and enjoy some well-timed humour. What does stand out by the end though is that there are too many main characters - Tasnim Mahdy’s spoken word is enchanting, but there’s no need for Hamida to be ever-present. The subplot with Mr Ism (Steaz) takes us away from the drummer’s plight - the culmination of this storyline ultimately finishes with a whimper.

We're not left reeling with grief or outrage or any of the strong emotions that a show like this should provoke in its conclusion. By paring back the script and allowing us to spend more time with just a few characters and investing in their development more, the company would be able to create something more naturally hard-hitting. There is an effort to stay vaguely current with references to restaurant raids, the Windrush deportation scandal and EDL-style rants on public transport. There doesn't need to be a media bingo - the company should trust in the power of of one good story to pack all the political punch for which they evidently yearn.

Amoon's use of shadow projections is charming, if a little rough in execution. This definitely helps inject more personality to the production and contributes to its success. It is the touches of warmth and relatability that show the most promise and where the company need to continue their efforts. Ironing Out is an ambitious piece of theatre that may have a few creases left, but still looks perfectly presentable as is.

Ironing Out opened on 23rd June and runs until 24th June 2019 at the Blue Elephant Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Oval (Northern)

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