A play that is so nearly perfect

(Left to right) EJ Martin, Claire Cartwright and Nitin Kundra in Alkalyne

TIM WALKER gives three stars to Alkaline at London's Park Theatre


Park Theatre, London, until August 4

*** (Three stars)

It is now more than half a century since Katharine Hepburn had to pluck up the courage to tell Spencer Tracy that their blonde-haired daughter was marrying Sidney Poitier in the film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. There is still, however, good drama to be had in two people from different cultures getting together.

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It is sad in a way that this should be so – that, after all this time, so many of us are still capable of getting hot and bothered if someone close to us should find love outside of the expected tribe – but, then again, this is a time characterised more by division than unity.

Stephanie Martin's new play Alkaline starts off with Sophie (EJ Martin) and her fiancé, Nick (Alan Mahon) preparing for a drinks party with their old school friend, Sarah (Claire Cartwright), and her new British Asian boyfriend, Ali (Nitin Kundra). Sophie professes to be horrified by Brexit, but her supposedly liberal, metropolitan credentials are being strained to breaking point by the fact that Sarah isn't merely marrying a man of colour, but she has also chosen to convert to the Islamic faith.

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There is a funny thing about conversation that a lot of people – exemplified by Sophie in this play – never grasp. It can be used to stress differences all the time – cultural, social, financial, whatever – or it can be used to unite, if people are only willing to look for a shared sense of humour, interests, passions. Unhappily, some people genuinely do seem to revel in the fault lines.

Sarah Meadows, the director, builds up the sense of embarrassment in this piece like an adept torturer. It's like Abigail's Party at the start with Sophie making everyone in the room feel miserable, but, as the evening progresses, it's clear they all have problems beyond her.

Kundra is brilliant as Ali: he has that ability to make you forget you're watching someone acting and you genuinely do feel his pain as Sophie drones on about the differences she perceives. He gets to make a big speech where he talks powerfully about how the whole Brexit saga has, from the start, been about a country with a rare ability to 'screw it up' for itself.

Even the film Victoria & Abdul, telling the story of an old powerful white lady's 'quirky' interest in someone who was foreign, enrages him. The fact anyone should feel the need to make such a film now – and in such a way – is, he suggests, a symptom of a country that can neither move with the times nor adapt its attitudes.

Powerful, thought-provoking stuff like this raises expectations for a moment of real epiphany, but, alas, it doesn't happen. There is a contrived visit from Aleesha – Ali's estranged wife, played by Reena Lalbihari – which causes the play to lose focus and the ending is a real let-down. My advice to its writer is to try to revive the play in a year or so after giving the ending a bit more thought.

She has come too tantalisingly close to greatness.

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