It’s not often that a play combines gags about anything and everything from food poisoning to dildos with one of the most significant political movements of the twenty-first century. Queen of the Nile, with its onslaught of jokes coming thick and fast and its setting amidst the Arab Spring, is certainly the first I’ve seen to tackle such a tricky dichotomy.
Tim Fountain’s new play at Hull Truck departs quickly from the rain-battered windows of a Wakefield flat in favour of sunnier Egyptian shores; we’re off to a promising start as Lizzie Roper’s Debbie swaps flipping burgers for the bright lights and cultural delights of Luxor. In these early scenes, the comedy of Debbie’s lacklustre life in England and the cringeworthy habits of Brits abroad is well-observed and quite pacey. By turns stroppy, deflated, excitable and fun, Roper brings colour to 40-year-old Debbie as it soon becomes clear she is not so interested in the Pyramids or sailing down the Nile as she is boozing it up and taking trips to Banana Island.
“Banana Island” is just one of a multitude of innuendo-laden gags, often from the mouth of self-confessed “queen” Mr Lesley, played by Dudley Sutton. He voices a plethora of the play’s “things you can’t say” and luxuriates in his character’s taste for speaking frankly, crudely and lewdly. Sutton works hard to bridge the gap between this levity and the underlying motives of a connivingly persuasive character and there is an interesting invitation here to consider what lies beneath the surface, as the tone shifts towards something darker and more sinister.
And the tone certainly does shift. Throughout the play, each scene is intercut with a clever use of projection that establishes context and keeps us up-to-date with the developments of the oncoming revolution. But there is a dilemma here, as the characters seem oddly unaffected by this life-changing political movement in the Middle East. Perhaps this is a comment on the blindness of the characters, so wrapped up in their own problems that they can’t see the bigger picture like we, the audience, can. Yet the comedy begins to sit uneasily alongside the sounds of bombing and guns in the distance, giving rise to questions of whether this is a comedy about a woman falling for a man too young for her, or a political commentary designed to make its audience feel uneasy and ask difficult questions about the role of tourism and expatriots in this area.
There’s no denying there are laughs to be had here, but amidst the dildos and bananas, the best are moments of wittier word play, delivered brilliantly by the cast. There are one-liners aplenty throughout, but it is perhaps Roper’s raucous declaration that her relationship with Mahmoud is not “friction” but “fact” that raised one of the biggest belly laughs of the night. Mention must be made of Michelle Butterly, playing Debbie’s gym bunny best friend Jan to perfection, as well as the brilliant Asif Khan who offers the most emotionally complex and assured performance of the play as Mahmoud.
With an effective design and a strong cast of four, if Queen of the Nile feels slightly inharmonious in tone and theme, this doesn’t detract from the laughs in the auditorium — not to mention gasps, if the press night audience is anything to go by.
Queen of the Nile is playing at Hull Truck Theatre until 11 May. For tickets and more information see the Hull Truck website.
Image credit: Hull Truck Theatre