Bush Theatre, London,
Until July 16
Theatres have their shining moments and they can sometimes be all too brief. Over the 30 years I’ve been reviewing, Michael Grandage’s Donmar and Indhu Rubasingham’s pre-pandemic Kiln were both venues I found it impossible to ignore. I had an on-off romance, too, with the Almeida. Of course, Sir Nick Hytner’s National shone occasionally, but too often in his day, and subsequently, it merely smouldered as a monument to the smug, deadening complacency of subsidised theatre.
These days, I find the centre of gravity is switching to the west of the capital, with the Riverside Studios and now the Bush coming into their own. I’ve an obvious bias with the Riverside – its boss, Rachel Tackley, was willing to stage my play Bloody Difficult Women earlier this year and ignore the legal letters from the Daily Mail‘s Paul Dacre who figures as a character in it – and it was especially hard hit by the pandemic.
I’ve a sense of unfulfilled promise about what Sir Kenneth Branagh’s production of The Browning Version – planned for last summer – would have been like. Still, it had a big hit with Operation Mincemeat and the run of my own play had to be extended. It’s proving to be an exciting venue, too, for young and up-and-coming talent. There is a real buzz about the place.
The Bush I can say without fear or favour is the other great cutting-edge venue in this neck of the woods. Now half a century old, it has launched the careers of Julie Walters, Alan Rickman and Simon Callow, it was the first to allow Victoria Walters to write, and it was at this venue that Daniel Radcliffe started out, as a seller of raffle tickets.
It’s had its lean years, too, of course, but under its current boss, Lynette Linton, it’s come out of the pandemic bursting with as much energy, spirit and brilliance as the Riverside. Beru Tessema’s House of Ife I readily awarded five stars last month with its spellbinding performance from Michael Workeye.
The venue has two more excellent dramas currently playing; Ambreen Razia’s Favour – looking at the struggles between three generations of a working-class Muslim family, running until August 6, and Nikhil Parmar’s Invisible.
The latter is the first of three new plays premiering in the Bush50 Studio Season as part of its 50th birthday celebrations and it’s an extraordinary piece of theatre.
I’ve said it once and I will say it again, but often the best theatre in the whole country is to be found on the smallest stages and with the smallest casts and budgets. This one is a prime example. It’s written and performed by Parmar and is, I suspect, at least a little autobiographical, as it’s about the trials and tribulations of an Asian actor.
It begins very cleverly with Parmar starting off the story with a pretentious speech about what his play is about and a moody look. He then curses and says he wants to do it again. The audience isn’t quite sure if this is for real or it’s acting. He does the moody look again and starts his pretentious speech again. Suddenly the moody look becomes intrinsically hilarious.
He goes on to talk about his life and how his girlfriend has left him for a fellow drama student who’s doing a BBC-HBO drama with Hugh Bonneville. When they eventually get to meet – Parmar plays all the parts – he enjoys needling his love rival by suggesting it’s a Sky drama and his co-star is Hugh Grant. This means that while his nemesis can upgrade it to the BBC and HBO, he also has to keep downgrading it to Bonneville, but then, as the vanquished lover points out, they were both in Notting Hill, so it’s confusing. Parmar’s Asian actor is struggling in his career – the next season of Jumping Jihadis has been cancelled on Dave – and he’s having to steal his sister’s hair gel because all his money is tied up on his Oyster travel card. On the side, he’s having to do a spot of drug-dealing just to make ends meet. His sister wonders what it is he can possibly do because it’s unlikely that Harry Potter and the Pakistani Poltergeist is ever going to get made.
Parmar has mastered all the characters and the accents impressively. A series of grotesques traverse the stage. In the racist, patronising, useless director he encounters at a casting session, and the fellow actor who ran off with his girlfriend and can only reinforce stereotypes by playing terrorists, there is an underlying rage, but it’s always funny because it’s so truthful.
Towards the end of the show, it starts to live up to its title and takes on a poignant feel as Parmar’s character comes to terms with the fact nobody knows who he is or appreciates him, and what we see is the start of a nervous breakdown. This is an actor with funny bones – by which I mean he can almost effortlessly make people laugh with just a look or a movement – but he can also play tragedy to almost unbearable effect.
The production is briskly directed by Georgia Green. The hour went by all too quickly. Diane Alison-Mitchell deserves a mention in dispatches as the movement director who has adeptly coached Parmar: often he is zooming backwards to signify that the action is moving back in time. There’s almost a balletic quality to his performance. The movement is continual and always perfectly judged and executed.
On the stage, exposed and alone for a full hour with no interval, it’s ultimately Parmar who makes this work and work it does, magnificently. Seldom, if ever, have I seen an actor go through the whole gamut of emotions from A to Z so seamlessly and compellingly. As this show’s writer and sole performer, he deserves the highest praise for coming up with something that’s funny, sad and devastatingly honest. It thrills me that there is still such talent coming up in the world of theatre and that this venue is willing to showcase and nurture it.