Many would have seen the viral clip of Musharaf Asghar aka Mushy from the Channel 4 series, Educating Yorkshire. The school kid from Dewsbury won the hearts of the nation when, despite his stammer, he was able to read a speech with improved fluency. This was all thanks to his English teacher’s suggestion to listen to music through his headphones whilst speaking. Mushy rose to stardom, as measured by the increase in his Twitter following of course, and he is now the subject of the new rap infused play, ‘Mushy: Lyrically Speaking’.
With book by Pravesh Kumar and direction by Ameet Chana, Mushy may not be the most solid piece of theatre, however there are more than enough positive elements to the show, that it should win you over by the end. British audiences love a story about an underdog and overcoming odds which makes this one an obvious pick for theatrical treatment. It could have been a sickly-sweet one – but that’s not entirely what you get here.
In many ways, this is a coming of age story. We first meet Mushy (Varun Raj) when he’s preparing for his GCSEs and see him go on to face tough decisions about his career and we also see his evolving relationship with his mother, Ammi (Medhavi Patel), and his English teacher, Mr Burton (Oliver Longstaff). Yes, having a stammer introduces a unique set of challenges, but in this production we learn that there’s much more to Mushy than that.
Stammering presents itself in different ways and for Mushy, his stammer means that he often gets stuck on words or sounds and there are prolonged silences within his speech. With Raj’s sensitive portrayal, there is a visible frustration as he struggles to get the words out from the opening scene. While trying to communicate with others, Mushy taps on his thigh, willing the words to escape.
Mushy is able to find release and express his inner thoughts in these moments when he starts to rap directly to the audience. In one endearing scene, a speech therapist advises him to blow bubbles to relax his jaw muscles. “Bubbles? I’m blowing bubbles?”, he asks perplexed and this becomes an entire number, complete with choreography and a bubble machine. In these numbers, by lyricist Raxstar, he’s not spitting quick rhymes with the power of say Stormzy, rather it has the flow of a young school boy’s pace of thought. It’s a smart choice as it conveys Mushy’s personality. It’s also fitting to use rap music which is known for delving into deeply personal and often conflicted thoughts.
What’s also interesting is that Mushy’s stammer doesn’t present itself so forcefully when he is at home with his mum. He is often cheeky and teases her but will laugh things off with a seemingly innocent smirk. There are some moments which dig into Asian stereotypes for cheap laughs at the start but thankfully it moves past this as the show progresses.
A strong focus of the show is the relationship between Mushy and his mother, Ammi. She is left to raise her five children on her own when her husband abandons her. She becomes isolated from the world and maintains increasingly high expectations for Mushy’s future. There’s an uncomfortable tension between the mum’s aspirations for Mushy to become a Doctor which clashes with Mushy’s ambition to pursue a career in media. You rarely see a British-Pakistan family dynamic portrayed so faithfully on stage and it’s wonderful to see here.
Raj as Mushy leads the show with charisma and is also brilliantly comedic, particularly in the number “Walk like an Ostrich”. Longstaff and Patel display surprising versatility in not only characterising their main roles but taking on many other supporting parts.
Unfortunately where the show suffers is a lack of a tight story arc. It does feel meandering at times and it doesn’t satisfactorily build and release tension to pack the emotional punch that you would expect in some areas. However where it lacks, this is more than made up for by where it excels due to the performances, production values and the inspiring messages that it carries.
There are very few people with a stammer in mainstream culture. Most will know King George VI thanks to the King’s Speech. The only other example apart from Mushy is perhaps Matthew Oghene, from ‘The Undateables’. Without much representation, it’s easy to think that having a stammer is synonymous with being painfully shy. This uplifting production rightly gives a platform to stories such as Mushy’s and it’s about time we see more like his own.
Mushy: Lyrically Speaking is running at the Arcola Theatre until 5 October 2019, before continuing its UK Tour.
Photo Credit: The Other Richard