Baghdaddy – Royal Court Theatre, London

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

Writer: Jasmine Naziha Jones

Director: Milli Bhatia

The audience waiting for Baghdaddy to start is left to work out why British wartime songs would be relevant to a play that is ostensibly about Iraq. The lights go down as Flanagan and Allen’s Underneath the Arches plays loudly and we see an Iraqi man with his daughter in 1991, eating burgers on steps in front of giant golden arches; the images gel together perfectly. Ironically, Iraqis are seen absorbing Western culture just as the owners of that culture are bombing their homeland into oblivion.

This clarity comes early in Jasmine Naziha Jones’ debut play, but, sadly, it is rarely equalled in the two hours or so that follow. In turns, the play becomes a comedy, a tragedy, a history lesson, a pantomime and, briefly, a musical, crying out for a solid structure to hold it all together. The writer’s decision to abandon conventional narrative forms is a bold one, but the result is a show that is often baffling.

The girl is Darlee, played by the writer herself, who is eight years old in 1991. Born in Britain, all she has known is British life and she has little patience with her Dad (Philip Arditti) who had moved to the United Kingdom as a student in 1980. His obsession with Iraqi history, culture and modern events is of little interest to Darlee. The play charts her growing awareness of the importance of blood ties in establishing self identity.

Souad Faress, Hayat Kamille and Noof Ousellam make up the company to five as we are presented with a surreal montage of life in Britain and Iraq, seen through Darlee’s eyes. At this point, the play is at its strongest when it hits the level of pantomime, but a sequence going back to Dad’s arrival in Britain becomes a comedy of culture clashes to which the audience responds with gales of laughter. The new arrival grapples with strange food and language barriers, wondering if a newsagent is in a similar profession to that of 007. With reports of the Iran/Iraq War flowing daily, Dad’s concerns for the family from which he is separated never diminish.

Designer Moi Tran’s imposing set, stone steps leading up to more arches which reflects classic Middle Eastern architecture, give director Milli Bhatia’s production a grandeur which may not be best suited to a play that is more often intimate than epic.

The second act fast forwards to 2003 when Darlee is a young woman and Iraq is under bombardment yet again. The comedy which had redeemed much of what went before is now missing. Eventually, Darlee turns to address the audience directly and, for the first time, the play becomes overtly political. The speech comes across as a long, stern lecture and it suggests that the writer could have run out of options for expressing her ideas in the form of drama

Following on, Dad is left alone on an empty stage to render his own soliloquy, this one in rhyming verse. Beautifully written and spoken though this passage is, it further exemplifies the stylistic muddle which bedevils the entire play.

Runs until 17 December 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

Bold but muddled

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