Writer: Shamser Sinha
Director: Sameena Hussain
The car is not exactly the star, but it does play a pivotal role in this engaging story of the Afridis, British South-Asian folk in the East of England.
The Octavia is a taxicab, the ambition and the livelihood of Amjad, “goatherd” and hard-working father of two. It is a constant presence in the small acting space it shares with the taxi firm’s office and the cramped domesticity of the family’s Peterborough flat, where the passing of time is flagged by a colourful wall calendar. Rachana Jadhav’s ingenious set makes good use of levels for variety; Amjad’s armchair is also his driving seat. Director Sameena Hussain uses the space imaginatively – the actors grouped two and two, silent figures in the half-dark, present and absent at once. There is humour as well as hardship in this heartfelt story – we cannot help but sympathise with this ordinary family, and feel for them as they nurture their dreams and play out their domestic dramas.
They are living out the everyday reality of a multicultural world. Christmas is the only feast we see celebrated; young Faisal has Le Petit Prince by his side as he dreams of the stars and grapples with Dark Matter, Amjad sings John Denver and recalls Homer Simpson. Rabia, his wife, is a spiritual, musical soul, with a Masters in Economics from Pakistan. She moves eventually to Canada, with wider skies and broader spiritualities.
But diversity must include difference. Their divorce, for example, baffles Amjad, the good husband who never beats his wife. He insists on the Islamic “iddah” – three months’ “cooling off” before separation. Kismet is frequently referenced.
And while this is not a piece about racism, prejudice or inequality, those themes are a constant backdrop to the family’s struggles. Bullying, corruption, discrimination and lack of empathy all conspire to make their life harder.
Four actors portray mother, father, son, daughter. But also, in an impressive array of cameos, various “fares”, officials, employers and employees.
Gurjot Dhaliwal, making a promising debut in this production, is Yasmin, a small child when the story begins. Two hours later she is a weary fighter for justice, being sucked reluctantly into the hard world of local politics. Her brother, drawn just as reluctantly into the taxi business, becomes, despite himself and his ambitions, more and more like his father. Ali Arshad, who also gives us a very believable call-handler with poor customer service skills, is movingly effective in his final breakdown.
Freny Nina Pavri plays the mother with style and grace, a telling contrast with her earth-bound husband. Several other strong women, too, though she seemed less at ease in the role of unsympathetic taxi boss Bridges. Pavri is a talented musician; she opens the show with a moment of meditation, and the strongest scene in the play, where Amjad, laid low by donuts and diabetes, stress and the cabbies’ sedentary lifestyle, is “visited” in his hospital bed by his ex-wife, is lent dramatic force by her tabla playing. Music is important to the story – hearts move with the beat – and it might have been good to have more of it played and sung live.
Tiran Aakel is Amjad, a very sympathetic character despite his irritating shortcomings, perfectly portrayed here: struggling to understand his family, battling with BT, stubbornly chasing a fare-dodger, hoping for a quickie in Express Cabs. And he gives us a wonderful gallery of supporting characters – including pitch-perfect portraits of a Londoner and a local in the back of Faisal’s cab.
The Octavia began its tour in Eastern Angles’ artistic base in Ipswich. It ends in what is the show’s spiritual home, Peterborough. It would be good to read an appraisal of this enterprising production by someone from the community whose lives it brings so vividly to the stage.
Tours until 6 November 2021