Bismillah! An ISIS Tragicomedy  – The Vaults, London

Writer: Matthew Greenhough

Director: Jonny Kelly

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

‘Bismillah! No, we will not let you go  – let him go.  Bismillah! We will not let you go – let him go’ are the instantly recognisable lyrics from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, and this song haunts Matthew Greenhough’s powerful play about a British soldier captured by ISIS in Iraq. As the subtitle suggests this is a black comedy, but with a razor-sharp script and scrupulous acting, this is a black comedy of the highest order.

Dean’s captor, Danny, has never heard of Bohemian Rhapsody, which is odd as he is also British, having travelled from his hometown of London to join ISIS. Dean sings a few lines to him to help him remember: ‘Mama, I just killed a man, put a gun against his head, pulled my trigger now he’s dead.’ These are brave words to sing as often Danny places a gun against Dean’s temple. Danny’s instructions are to kill Dean.  Are the lyrics foreshadowing what’s to come?

Dean and Danny soon realise that they have a lot in common. Both men are tired of the vacuity of modern life and, to give meaning to their lives, both joined armies to feel a sense of belonging. Fighting for a cause seems more worthwhile than working at a Wetherspoons or at an airport’s WH Smith, where people buy lunch deals ‘on their way to catch chlamydia in Magaluf.’ Even though Dean is tied to a pole for most of the play, the two men become friendly, even revealing their insecurities when it comes to girlfriends.

Bismiilah! opened in Edinburgh in 2015 as a three-hander, but in this new version Danny’s superior has been excised. This seems like a clever move, ensuring that Danny is now responsible for his own actions, and is not simply following orders. Elliot Liburd plays him with a South London accent, half-boy, half-man. ‘You get me? ‘ he demands a few times, desperate for approval, even if it’s from his prisoner. His sense of loss and confusion is palpable, and he only seems at ease when he remembers the past.

Dean is played by Greenhough, always channelling a Northern mischievousness despite the fact he is shackled. He will push as far as he can to make a connection with his captor. Greenhough’s performance crackles with ferocity and fear. The fact that both men are terrified means that anything can happen, and both actors’ movements are taut and tense, sometimes prowling, sometimes still.

The most famous play about hostages is Frank McGuinness’s masterpiece Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, about three men held in Lebanon. Bismillah! is similarly assured, just as funny, just as moving. Danny and Dean are both products of a shallow globalised society, and it would be easy to suggest that they have the same choices, but Greenhough’s observant writing clearly shows that Danny, as a member of an ethnic minority, will never feel that he wholly belongs in England.

While this play deserves a longer run and a bigger theatre, it looks quite at home in the Vault’s Cavern space, damp and full of echoes. Played in the round, Jonny Kelly’s smart direction ensures that the audience is as close as possible to the relationship that grows between the men. When the climax comes, it’s quite staggering. This play may be set in Iraq, but it’s a meticulous and a very funny examination of masculinity in a Britain that has become meaningless.

Runs until 4 March 2018 | Image: Contributed


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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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