Kings of Idle Land – The VAULT Festival, London

Writer and Director: Conor Hunt

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Oldham 2001, and a race riot turns the streets alight as Pakistani residents build barricades against the police, and white racists. Hammad and Michael take refuge in a park after being chased by men they cheerily call ‘knob heads’. In the middle of this mayhem, the two 17-year-old boys can become kings of the park. They are kings nowhere else.

Conor Hunt’s coming-of-age and coming-out play is an acute observation of youth even though it covers some familiar territory. In its depiction of an interracial relationship, there are echoes of My Beautiful Laundrette, another text that features a love affair between a Pakistani man and a white man.

Like Johnny in Hanif Kureishi’s screenplay, Michael comes from a working-class background; he’s struggling at school, and at home, where he lives with his mother and brother. Michael’s schoolfriend Hammad is more settled. His parents accept that he’s gay, and he’s squared his sexuality with Allah. He approaches his faith in a scattergun manner; he won’t eat smoky bacon crisps, but he relishes beer and spilff with gusto. Despite their differences, the two boys get on well, but when Michael gets caught up in the riots it seem certain that they will have to separate.

Both actors give strong performances, but Samuel Retford as Michael is utterly believable, dejection clearly visible in his slumped shoulders. Shiv Rabheru gives Hammad a maturity beyond his years, already wise at the age of 17. There’s a wonderful section when we see their relationship blossom through movement, and the result, as they tumble on the astroturf, is touching, and the height difference between the two actors in incredibly affecting. It’s a shame that this movement, directed by Felipe Pacheco, doesn’t reappear later on in the show.

Kings of Idle Landis presented in the Cavern, the trickiest performance space within the Vault. It extends deeply, and Hunt has tried to use all the space, but in doing so he’s side-lined the edges of the audience who struggle to hear the dialogue above the rumble of trains in and out of Waterloo station. It doesn’t help that some of the lines are mumbled or delivered too speedily. Many of these problems could be easily solved if it was shown in the round. It’s an intimate play, and, as such, needs intimate staging.

Overall, Kings of Idle Landis an evocative and often very funny piece, supported by some sensitive acting. The play is best summed up when the boys consider Leeds as a place to which to escape. It’s simultaneously comical and heart-breaking.

Runs until 10 February 2019 | Image: Contributed

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