Reviews: Mwana, by Ankur Productions; and Double Nugget, by Random Accomplice

Mwana

Seen at Tron Theatre, Glasgow, run ended;

at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Wednesday to Saturday

 

Double Nugget

Seen at Tron Theatre, Glasgow, run ended; touring until March 10

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

 

Ankur Productions – which, in its own words, “has played a pioneering role in developing black and minority ethnic arts in Scotland” – gained richly deserved international recognition for Roadkill, its award-winning 2010 play (co-produced with Pachamama Productions) about the trafficking of young African girls into prostitution in the UK. It is disappointing that it should follow such a powerful piece with the dreary Zimbabwean-Scottish soap opera that is Tawona Sitholé’s Mwana.

Mwanawashe (played by Denver Isaac), a Zimbabwean postgraduate student at Glasgow University, flies into Harare without the designer suits he was to bring for his brother’s wedding. Instead, he presents his Scottish girlfriend, Kirsten (Mairi Philips), a doctoral student in anthropology.

Mwana (as he is called for short) seems to have been conceived as a complex and conflicted character: estranged from his southern African roots, misunderstood and alienated in Europe, and overburdened by the sky-high expectations of his middle-class family, who have paid for his studies. However, so two-dimensional are both Sitholé’s writing and director Shabina Aslam’s characterisations that Mwana emerges as an unsympathetic, self-pitying adolescent (imagine Harry Enfield’s teenager Kevin, but without the jokes).

The crassness of the script and characterisations extend throughout the piece. The idea that Kirsten, a highly educated PhD student, would turn up in Harare saying “aye” and “uh-huh” instead of “yes” is especially silly. Given the considerable growth of Glasgow’s African population, particularly over the past 12 years or so, there is, no doubt, a fine play to be written about people whose identity comprises both Scotland and Africa. Unfortunately, Mwana is not that play.

If Ankur’s piece smacks of soap opera, Mary Massacre, the first play in Double Nugget (Johnny McKnight’s double bill for Random Accomplice), has more than a few shades of sitcom. A broken marriage, heavy alcohol consumption and an online dating website conspire to send Jenny and Leyla hurtling towards each other. Before they collide, however, we get snapshots of their lives through parallel monologues.

We know McKnight’s line in colourfully over-the-top, working-class humour from his Little Johnny trilogy and Ardrossan (his contribution to the Smalltown trilogy of Ayrshire comedies). He continues in a similar vein here, albeit that the comic hit rate is noticeably lower. Jenny and Leyla talk dysfunctional families, cheap vodka and pop culture as if Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads had been gatecrashed by Tony Roper’s The Steamie.

Whether such bold characterisations provide a bleakly comic “slice of life” or just another patronising caricature of the West of Scotland working class is a moot point. What seems more certain, however, is that McKnight’s often insubstantial comedy is ill equipped to hold the weight of the self-consciously emotive conclusion which he drops upon it.

Where Mary Massacre falters, its partner piece – the ill-conceived, metatheatrical Seven Year Itch – simply collapses. A play-within-a-play-within-a-play, it offers us actors (Julie Brown and Martin McCormick) playing versions of themselves, playing Glasgow office workers (unfunnily named Jenny Talia and Drew Peacock), playing versions of, we are assured, real-life Chicago office workers (Mary and Nicholas) who were the subjects of a brutal cause célèbre a decade ago. Throw in a dead dog, a Dolly Parton obsession, ultra-conservative Christian homophobia and a barrowload of theatrical in-jokes, and it isn’t difficult to see why this overwrought dark comedy implodes so quickly.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on February 19, 2012

© Mark Brown

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