Writer: Rabiah Hussain
Director: Richard Speir
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Feeling like an outsider in your own city has become an increasing problem for generations of immigrant families in the UK. With the recent Windrush scandal affecting the original arrivals and their families born in Britain – the tensions of which were so well captured by plays like Natasha Gordon’s Nine Night– Rabiah Hussain’s debut play Spunfocuses on the experience of two London-born Pakistani girls, best friends, whose ordinary lives change irrevocably in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings.
Aisha and Safa, who’ve lived all their lives in Forest Gate, finish university and, with the announcement that London will host the Olympics in a few years’ time, new worlds open-up before them. Safa heads to “Central”, a marketing job in a big city firm introducing her to a group of new friends that alter her perspective on her heritage, while the less ambitious but scrappier Aisha stays in East London in a temporary role as a Teaching Assistant. Soon forces start to drive the best friends apart and they realise, they don’t know each other as well, as they think.
Hussain’s play is an examination of female friendship during a particularly tense period of modern history. With almost every scene focused on their shared experiences, history, religion, jobs, family, class and political feeling, it’s a piece that easily passes the Bechdel Test and a welcome example of how stories about woman can be told without reference to any form of relationship status, not so much as one boyfriend or male-based drama from beginning to end.
Using the build-up to the 7/7 bombing and its aftermath as a frame, Hussain successfully paints a picture of Aisha and Safa slowly becoming more estranged, as their once dedicated friendship starts to feel the weight of their different lifestyles. Hussain well captures an ongoing concern over whether to integrate into the workplace, adapting to the language and cultural forms, as well as engaging with different societal groups, or to protect the community and its heritage by actively preserving their rituals, dress and language. It’s a decision she leaves to the audience to determine.
However, once the friends’ lives and new approaches are established, it leaves the story with almost nowhere to go. Hussain builds to a final confrontation between Aisha and Safa a year on, and asks us to mourn their fractured relationship, but it doesn’t offer the audience anything new. Hussain has already done the work, showing the increasing distance between the pair and their disapproval of each other’s lives, so the final fireworks are a surprise only to the characters.
Aasiya Shah’s Aisha doesn’t plan her life and instead stumbles from university to Teaching Assistant, rooting herself in the familiar and easy. Shah makes her tomboyish and flinty, but proud of her local community, and fearful of the changes in the way people see her as a result of the bombings. A subplot about the 10-year anniversary of her mother’s death feels a little contrived but Shah uses it to shape Aisha’s own transformation.
As Safa, Humaira Iqbal is much softer and more pliant, enthused by the new life and people she gets to meet beyond her community. Iqbal relays Safa’s nervousness entering an unfamiliar environment and how she slowly, actively adapts to the speech patterns and expectations of her colleagues. The relationship with Aisha is sweet, but it credibly erodes as the two friends fight over integration or isolation.
Spun adds to the emerging call for more working-class voices in theatre, revealing the experiences of Londoners we see every day in town but all too rarely on stage. Hussain’s piece needs a little more structure to drive the plot forward, but a solid and interesting debut.
Runs until 28 July 2018 | Image: Alex Brenner