There is a Field  – Theatre503, London

Writer: Martin Askew

Director:  Esther Baker

Reviewer:  Richard Maguire

Mark used to get high with smack but now he gets high from religion. He’s just got a big fix of Allah and seeks to convert his East End neighbourhood to Islam. Martin Askew’s debut play There is a Field explores the life of a Muslim convert, but ultimately it borrows too much from soap operas to be taken entirely seriously.

When Mark became Abdullah he severed the ties with his old kuffar ways, but now his family are trying to find him because his father has died. However, Mark has a new family now; he doesn’t need his brother, Tony, as he’s now surrounded by his Muslim brothers. He takes his religion seriously, so seriously that his old school friend Saleh worries that Mark could easily be radicalised by the Google Sheikhs online.

This tension between the secularism of Saleh and the radicalism of Mark is nicely judged in this play, but there’s a whole other plotline involving Mark’s mother and brother that isn’t so convincing. Maureen and Tony live in part of the East End where teeth are still called Hampsteads and faces, boats. Much of the humour comes from Tony (Fabrizio Santino), a Cockney wide-boy, who’s just stepped off the set of EastEnders or Only Fools and Horses, gold bling hanging over his black polo-neck jumper. Maureen (Sarah Finigan) spouts on to her two sons about ‘family, family, family’ like Peggy Mitchell berating Phil and Grant.

This soap opera setting, along with its familiar storylines that tumble out of the play’s second half, rather undo all the good work exploring the links between masculinity and religion. As Mark/Abdullah, Sam Frenchum (who impressed so much in The Outsider at The Print Room last year) is genuinely scary, his fervent beliefs exposing misogyny and homophobia. However, his passion is also endearing as it gives him a place in the world and meaning to his life. Archie Backhouse does his best with Saleh, but this geology graduate with a passion for Romantic poetry needs a few more contours of his own if he is to be fully believable.

There is a Field is commissioned by Synergy Theatre Project, an organisation that works with prisoners and young offenders, and it began working with Askew after he left prison. Occasionally there are glimpses of another play, based on Askew’s experience, that could see the light of day, for instance, the part when Mark discusses how white prisoners convert to Islam in return for protection.

Askew’s play works best when it feels real, and it often does, especially in the final tender scene, but at other times soap flakes get in the way. There is a Field should have more courage of its convictions.

Runs until 16 March 2019 | Image: Lidia Crisafulli

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