President Barack Obama has killed a dog. With his bare hands. And apparently he lived with an illegal Pakistani immigrant in Harlem before jumping up the social ladder, fulfilling the American dream and landing the world’s most powerful position. You can’t imagine the well-spoken democrat in a smelly flat, broke and rowing with his drug-addict best friend? Well, take a trip to Waterloo East Theatre and see for yourself.
The small theatre smells rank from the minute you enter – a brilliant touch of staging. The stage is small and surrounded by seats which are practically on top of the actors, who dance around in a mess of cardboard boxes and long-gone items from the 80s. Francesca Reidy’s design is urban and fresh as boxes have been plastered all over the ceiling, and the simple staging, lighting and sound create an intimacy that draws the audience in from the very beginning.
It is difficult watching a young Obama in this setting and it takes some time to forget the truth behind the play and just let the actors tell the story. A friendship falls apart as the night goes on. Barry (Obama – played by Syrus Lowe) is offered the job in Chicago he’s been wishing for – an opportunity that could start his career helping the poor and getting into politics. His friend and flatmate, the illegal Pakistani immigrant Sal (Junaid Faiz), sees his friend and future slip through his fingers as the beloved dog Charlie goes missing – and a search for a pet turns into a revelation of hopes and secrets as the friendship is tested and weighed. Can you really trust the people closest to you? And does every friendship have an end?
Rashid Razaq’s new play has beautiful, real moments between the two friends. Syrus Lowe embodies Obama with an earthiness and grace that fools you into thinking that he could actually be the charismatic man himself there on the tiny stage underneath a bridge in Waterloo. Lowe is a master of impersonation and, having worked with dialect coach Maeve Diamond, his Obama is both truthful and new. Junaid Faiz (straight out of ALRA) masters Sal’s dialect to perfection and plays the Pakistani man with such energy and heart that he will touche even the hardest of hearts as he mourns the loss of his friend and the dog, Charlie.
Charlie is a sweet metaphor for the imploding friendship between the two – ambition has come between them and where one’s dreams begin the other’s end. Rashid Razaq questions society and its responsibility and failures, as Sal decays and is lost to drugs. Where Obama proves that anything’s possible, Sal is an example that the journey up hill is not for everyone. Though it is a story of the most powerful man in the world, it is as simple as a friendship between two people coming to an end. We grow up and apart; as our goals and lives change so do our friends. What we forget in our pursuit of success is that whoever is left behind might not be as lucky as us.
Tom Attenborough’s production is small, intimate and moving, but the Obama figure is a tad too celebrated – Razaq depicts him as a genius intellectual without flaws. The president’s qualities are mentioned a bit too often and the recording of one of his speeches at the end seems too patriotic for the London stage. However both actors fill the stage with energy and charisma, and invite the audience into their private sphere as the two friends whose lives have been driven in different directions.
And you do see the president do a little dance. With shades. Enough said.
The President and the Pakistani is playing at Waterloo East Theatre until 4 November. For more information and tickets, see www.waterlooeast.co.uk