Review: Bismillah! An ISIS Tragicomedy, The Vaults

Compelling, sympathetic and intelligent.

Advertised as a tragicomedy, Bismillah! An ISIS Tragicomedy is exactly that, but perhaps more a tragedy with some cultural puns thrown in for good measure. The story follows the relationship between British soldier Dean who is being held captive by an Islamic State soldier, who Dean quickly nicknames Danny (I won’t ruin why). The fluctuating developments keep us gripped for an hour of high stakes drama broken up by a few genuinely funny heartfelt points of interest.

Upon entering the Cavern at The Vaults, it is like walking out of London and into a different atmosphere which would almost seem quite hostile if not for the reassurance from Freddie Mercury’s ‘I want to break free’ (of which I’m sure the irony was intended), blaring through the speakers as you walk past a prisoner of war tied to a pole set on a hard concrete floor, forming what is to be the only set to engage us into believing the high stakes circumstances. However, no other set is required as Elliot Liburd (Danny) and Matt Greenhough (Dean) involve us from the get-go in a very believable oppressor and oppressed relationship. Unfortunately, at times near the beginning, it is difficult to understand what Greenhough is saying, perhaps due to a weak ‘r’ sound or because he is so involved in his situation and high stakes that his thoughts are flying too fast for me to process what is being said. However, the jokey banter between Greenhough and Liburd lands slowly but surely as the two characters from different cultural backgrounds realise that they aren’t entirely all that different – you can’t be that different when you’ve both worked for J.D Wetherspoons!

Liburd’s pent-up energy is really well portrayed and, metaphorically, had me on the edge of my seat with no idea when his fuse might blow, as it did in the most serene of moments. At times I was genuinely frightened by his jack-in-the-box passionate, yet unstable, energy! His control and continuity to his character outshines that of his partner’s.

The tempo of the piece is what made me invest most in believing the situation: from cautious gauging of one another, the two men share spells of laughter and ease as they impart stories of ex-girlfriends, times that life has left them in the dirt and then on a serious note, fundamental beliefs creating gritty tension as religion and morals merge under the concept of showing compassion: Bismillah.

Despite this concrete connection between the actors, I was thrown off course by some minor distractions: stage combat in the round is known to be very difficult, however, in the final scenes, it looks very real with the use of contact punches and close combat naps, yet the first half the choreography is distracting from a story that in all other aspects I was wholly engaged in.

(Spoiler alert)

In addition to this early on suspect fight choreography, the resolution also had me feeling slightly disengaged; the physical reactions experienced by Greenhough and Liburd, in response to being heavily shelled, didn’t correlate in my imagination and made the circumstance comparatively weak and therefore not quite as easy to believe and invest in as the rest of the play.

Despite these tremors of distraction, the entire piece as a whole is an invaluable and important piece of theatre in reflecting society’s habits in distancing one another due to race or cultural background when there is much more that we have in common than we think and we shouldn’t let the stigma of beliefs cloud our humanity.

As far as compelling two handers go, Bismillah is, in my books, on par with Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle by Simon Stevens.

Bismillah! An ISIS Tragicomedy played at The Vaults until 4 March 2018

Photo: The Vaults 

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