Ali J[author-post-rating] (2/5 Stars)

This monologue about an individual waiting for death, alone in a prison cell, has themes that are universal and political ideas that are relevant and important; certainly this is a story that deserves to be told. Unfortunately, noble aims don’t necessarily make for good theatre – and as a piece of art, Ali J does not quite succeed.

Shekinah Jacob’s script gives us a glance into the ordinary upbringing of an Indian boy, the child of a sweet-making father and an over-doting mother, who smothers him with her belief that he is perfect. While studying Hotel Management in England, Ali J attends a production of Hamlet at the Globe and simultaneously falls in love with the tragic hero and with the whole concept of being an actor.

There are quite a few disordered threads here. For a while it is unclear who Ali J is, exactly: an actor? A freedom fighter? Confusingly, the programme gives lots of information on Muhammad Ali Jinnah, though it soon becomes clear that this is simply for background on India’s political situation. This Ali J, rather, is everyman. Imprisoned unfairly, he waits and waits; he was tortured in police custody, he has been imprisoned for a decade and all he has to look forward to is the embrace of the hangman’s noose.

Though there are problems with Jacob’s script, there are also moments of profundity and chilling understatement, as when a policeman comments on how “uncomfortable” it is that “in India a man is guilty until proven innocent”. Ali J’s main trouble is not with its script so much as with the miscasting of its solo performer, as, in spite of best efforts, T M Karthik is not quite a subtle enough actor to elevate the script above its missteps.

Karthik’s performance lacks nuance, filled as it is with yelling and screaming, even seeming at times almost a parody of a one-man show, as when he recreates the name-calling voices of his fellow students at school, jumping from one side to the next, leaping literally into the positions of other characters on the stage, instead of conveying this through performance alone. The fact that he’s playing a character who’s obsessed with being an actor doesn’t help, as he recites speeches from Hamlet and comments on his skills as a performer; it only serves to invite you to consider Karthik’s abilities, or lack thereof, as a performer.

Kartik has also directed, and there is some nice, inventive staging here, as when he ties the slack ropes that hang from each bar of his cell, criss-crossing them between the bars so that Ali J looks caught in the middle of a spider’s web. But the initial mask-work is half-done and unnecessary scene changes do not allow momentum to build. All this, combined with Karthik’s struggling performance, leave you with a sense of wasted potential. The script is probably worth a read, but is too tied up in staging and performance problems here to get much of its message across.

Ali J can be seen at 12.30pm at Pleasance Courtyard, every day until 25th August. For more information and tickets, visit the Edinburgh Fringe website.