Writer and Director: AJ
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
“Art is liberty, liberty is art” reads the tagline of AILIA theatre company formed by writer, director and producer “AJ” who feels that current theatre has been “diminished” by standardisation. His first play Aisha which premieres at the newly refurbished Hens & Chickens pub is intended to return theatre to its purest form as “an act of expression” unpolluted by commerce, and inspired by an article that tells the story a young girl sold into marriage.
Aisha is 17 and spent the last three years with a 51-year old man who purchased her from her parents. Born and raised in Dagenham, but married secretly in Nigeria, Aisha is trapped in a brutal relationship with a man who frequently tortures and rapes her, while expecting her to be a dutiful housewife. As she struggles with the physical pain and isolation, Aisha frequently hears her mother’s voice telling her to obey, while she craves freedom.
AILIA’s mission to produce work with a social conscience and highlight complex social issues is an admirable one and there are many elements of Aisha which are compelling and enlightening. AJ has deliberately chosen to depict characters and events in their raw state and no concessions are made to the squeamishness of the audience. Its 18+ rating is a necessity for a show that opens with its heroine alone on stage both describing and seemingly experiencing a brutal rape, while later she is forcibly tied to the kitchen table and savagely tortured. These are not scenes often depicted on stage and, while the latter in particular seems gratuitous, it is bravely performed.
However, first-time playwright AJ is less experienced in keeping hold of the strands of the story, which muddies Aisha’s central narrative voice. It starts extremely well with no other characters just descriptions of people and events entirely described by Aisha – it’s her story and for most of the first two scenes, her voice commands attention. Things begin to go awry with the introduction of several other characters whose presence adds very little and turns a strong first-person piece into a jumble of thinly-sketched caricatures whose presence detracts from Aisha’s story.
Least effective is a poker night with Aisha’s husband (Ayo Oyelakin) and his best friend, the bigoted and entitled Mr White (Lloyd Morris). The inclusion of this crudely devised scene seems misguided as Mr White rambles on at length about immigration, Islam, terrorism, Brexit and teenage girls without adding much to Aisha’s story. And later meeting a Support Worker (Olivia Valler-Feltham) the narrative drive is switched to her similar experience rather than focusing on what happens to Aisha and whether she is given help. Context is all very well but it is an elongated 95 minutes, and several of the later scenes often seem superfluous.
The show’s saving grace is a sensitive and well-judged performance from Laura Adebisi as Aisha in her professional debut, who has to balance graphic descriptions and performance with fear and rising anger. Adebisi also starts at fever pitch to suggest years of captivity already endured and the seemingly endless days to come, which she conveys with skill, and while there is room for more nuance in the way she presents Aisha’s terror, Adbeisi could easily carry the play as a single narrative piece.
Aisha is a show with lots of potential and the chance to make an impact in an area poorly understood in mainstream theatre. There are plenty of issues it tries to cover, touching not just on the mechanics of child marriage, but also the wider influence of race, religion and gender which could be explored further. With greater focus and some judicious editing of extraneous characters, Aisha herself could have plenty more to say about her experiences; if AILIA wants to give women like her a voice, then we shouldn’t need to hear from anyone else.
Runs until 24 June 2017 | Image: AILIA