There’s intimacy, verbal violence, and social agony in Alkaline. There’s also what one might define a sapient triumph of awkwardness and prejudice. This, together with a spot-on set design, makes it an impressively and scarily credible play.
Sarah is planning her wedding with Nick, after being together for more than ten years. Her long-standing friend Sophie, on the other hand, is enjoying the freshness and excitement of her new relationship with Ali. Things are made spiced up by Ali’s Muslim faith, to which Sophie has recently converted (of her own accord) and Ali’s first wife and family. Gathering at a dinner party, the two couples try their best to find things to talk about; however, it feels they hardly have anything to say to each other, and even Sarah and Sophie are as distant as they can be. Conversations are empty while drinks are plenty, used as a filler for meaningless talk. A plot twist gives Sarah’s new relationship and faith an unexpected turn, but will this rescue her friendship with Sophie?
The script by Stephanie Martin is crisp, quick, and wonderfully witty. Dialogue is the central element of the show, and the best bits are the rapid, exchanges over drinks, with Sophie (EJ Martin) and Sarah (Claire Cartwright) giving their absolute best. The former is nerve-wrackingly anxious, the latter seemingly soulful and in control. The two of them manage to sketch a truly realistic friendship, which we take to have been strong the past, and are sad to see almost gone to pieces now.
Ali (Nitin Kundra) and Nick (Alan Mahon) in their fiancé roles, display similar credibility, occasionally marred by a vein of didacticism or a touch of casualness too much. The character that should unlock the real explosive and life-changing potential of the play, Aleesha (Reena Lalbihari), does not quite live up to her role, failing to give a plausible soul to an admittedly complicated character. In general, the overall pace of the play is well balanced, hooking the audience up at the start and leaving them with much to ponder on at the end, slowing down only a handful of moments.
What’s truly fascinating about Alkaline is the complex set of themes the play touches upon. First of all, Islam – we see just how mis-thought and mis-understood Islam is, both by people outside of it and, to an extent, Muslim and converts themselves. Watching Sarah defending her life choices before Sophie’s incredulous eyes is at once painful and refreshing. Her is a truthful, un-preaching description of what faith is like, lacking in detail only because that is precisely what real faith lacks. There’s also an arresting insight into relationships, either crumbling by inertia or being built in spite of jealousy and the past.
A pink-walled house full of cacti and fancy ornaments is the embodiment of Sophie as a character. Hats-off to production designer Georgia de Grey also for making the space look twice its actual size, squeezing in stairs, a small garden and extra back room in the small space of the Park theatre. As Sophie herself explains, “I like things to match”, and this couldn’t be more obvious from her furniture and inner décor.
Marketed as a play about “faith, friendship and fear”, I found Alkaline to be much more than that: the show relishes in inadequacy, with impressive realism and abundant food for thought.
Alkaline is playing at the Park Theatre until 4 August
Photo: Matthew Foster