Blue Mist, Royal Court
Wednesday 11th October 2023
Multiculturalism, according to the Home Secretary, has failed, so where does that leave British Black and Asian communities? Well, certainly not silent. In Mohamed-Zain Dada’s vigorous 90-minute debut play, Blue Mist, the pronouncements of the person he calls Suella de Vil are greeted with all the contempt they deserve. Premiering at the Royal Court’s Upstairs studio space, this story about South Asian Muslim men offers an insight into shisha lounge culture — and challenges easy stereotypes about youth and masculinity.
Set in Chunkyz Shisha Lounge, where the twentysomething mates Jihad, Rashid and Asif come to hang out, an alcohol-free place to smoke shisha (hubble-bubbles) and chat about, well, everything. They’ve been mates for years, and they represent working class youngsters, who work as baggage handlers at Heathrow or as assistant managers for a car-hire or aspire to run a gym specially for older women (if only they can raise the money). When they’re not working, they smoke and “chat shit”, telling stories about Sufi levitation, about girls who are out of their class, and their aspirations for a good life.
But the harmony of this friendship group is threatened by that fact that Jihad, the only one who has been to uni, is an aspiring but failed journalist desperate for a break. When, with the encouragement of Rashid and Asif — who contribute some lively and creative ideas — he manages to win a competition from Ajami Media to make a podcast series about shisha lounges, will his initial idea of giving voice to his community prevail. Or will the media company’s desire for headline grabbing shocks win out? After all, the lounges are under scrutiny for health reasons (too much indoor smoking) and due to political suspicion (are they seminaries for radicalization?)..
Needless to say, Jihad finds himself increasingly compromised by the need to come up with spicy details about the violent past of one of his mates, and to create revelations that will satisfy Ajami Media’s listeners. In the process he begins to do unethical things, like recording private conversations, and it’s hardly a spoiler to say that things will end badly. The problem here is that this is not completely convincing, and Jihad’s inner struggles are not clear enough until the end of the play. Still, Dada tells this story with an enormous amount of verbal and physical energy, including dream sequences which involve a literal blue mist, and conversations with the media company’s editors (voiced by the actors playing Rashid and Safi). At one point, the Walt Disney Mary Poppins’s song is subverted into “A spoonful of Muslim helps the news go down — in the most alarming way!”
Dada writes with a wonderfully warm vibrancy, delivering some brilliant anecdotes — especially in the play’s opening sequences — and there’s a real feeling that this is a report from the front line of Muslim masculinity. Other themes include racist prejudice, religious bigotry, the misery of dating apps, and class in contemporary Britain. While the chat between the lads is vividly real it is balanced by extracts from Jihad’s documentary, which are informative about Muslim culture in general and shish lounges in particular. But there’s a greater joy in the great blast of authenticity that comes from hearing the voices of these young men.
But while Blue Mist is a story that benefits from being seen from inside the world of the shisha lounge, this is also its drawback as a drama. Although Ajami Media’s views are represented, the conflict between them and Jihad is muted because they never come onstage as themselves, but only as voiced by Rashid and Asif. I really wanted to see them engage with Jihad in real time. As it is, his betrayal of his friends is both predictable and somehow not emotional enough. The final 15 minutes, which include unnecessarily didactic passages, seem redundant to me, although the farewell quote from Jamal Mehmood’s poem “White Applause in the North of England” is perfect in its many-sided irony.
Milli Bhatia’s production, designed by Tomás Palmer with a bare set featuring a huge neon sign, green sofas and a sunken table topped by a large hookah, works best in the scenes when the friends tell humorous anecdotes or criticize their community’s victimhood. The three-man cast — Salman Akhtar (Asif), Omar Bynon (Jihad) and Arian Nik (Rashid) — are superb talkers and movers, and have a great onstage rapport. While Jihad’s ambition to “rewrite the narrative” by using his mates as “stepping stones” is tragic, this play does signal the arrival of a thrilling new voice on London’s new writing scene.
This review first appeared on The Arts Desk