Alkaline – Park Theatre, London

Writer: Stephanie Martin 

Director: Sarah Meadows 

Reviewer: Stephen Bates 

There are some parties where it is preferable to be a fly on the wall rather than an invited guest. Such is the case in Stephanie Martin’s new one-act play, in which Sophie throws a drinks party in an attempt to rekindle her fading friendship with Sarah. However, there is an elephant in the room; Sarah is wearing a hijab following her recent conversion to Islam.

Martin sets up an intriguing and potentially provocative scenario for examining modern inter-faith tensions. She sets it up and then does hardly anything with it, opting instead for a routine comedy of embarrassment. EJ Martin’s Sophie is highly-strung, bossy and has a talent for finding a faux pas to fit every situation; she is the hostess from Hell, who could be modelling herself on Beverley in Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party. Her ineffectual fiancé Nick (Alan Mahon) snorts coke and cowers on the open staircase when he has performed what seems to be his sole duty – riling his partner – too well. 

A beaming Sarah (Claire Cartwright) arrives with her new fiancé in tow, Ali (Nitin Kundra), a Geordie Moslem who is separated from his wife and three children. Ali swigs from beer bottles and indulges in locker room banter with Nick as Martin seems at pains to show that he is just an ordinary bloke notwithstanding his faith. However, there are more than a few hints of gender stereotyping in her grouping of angst-ridden women and laid back men.

Sarah explains her decision to convert, in vague and dreamy terms, announcing that it makes her feel “alkaline”. Her reasons for wearing the hijab are even less clear, but we have to assume that it is not at the insistence of Ali, when his estranged wife Aleesha (Reena Lalbihari) appears, not similarly attired. Sophie finds reassurance from knowing that Christianity and Islam are both “Abramovich” religions (a malapropism that followers of Chelsea FC may appreciate). “You look nice in it (the hijab)” she whimpers sheepishly with a faint smile, following up with the useful information that M&S now stocks burkinis.

By using the lightweight character of Sophie to give voice to the prejudices and misconceptions that she seeks to highlight. the writer adds a comic touch to the play’s most serious moments. Ali’s long rebuttal of Sophie’s biggest gaffe is the most searching speech in her script, but its fire is also eventually doused by flippancy. Sadly, such focused exchanges are rare and Martin, seemingly having run out of things to say on her core theme, allows the play to drift off at two tangents and become about relationship troubles and family break-up.

Director Sarah Meadows’ production brings out the brittle humour well, exploiting the claustrophobic feel of Georgia de Grey’s cramped orange and green set. After 75 minutes, the party fizzles out and the play with it. This little comedy is amiable enough, but it is entirely toothless and the opportunities which Martin gives herself to say something meaningful are mostly wasted.

Runs until 4 August 2018 | Image: Contributed

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