In Out of Sorts, Zara (Nalân Burgess) occupies two different worlds.
With her British millennial housemate Alice (Emma Denly), Zara gets drunk and eats vegan food. The pair discuss boys and playfully bicker over who has been able to maintain the best body.
While with her Muslim family, Zara is increasingly distant. After coming back from Uni, she rarely visits and no longer wants to wear her Hijab nor pray. Zara finds herself embarrassed by what her family says and calls out her dad’s political incorrectness (‘dad – you can’t just say he’s black, people will think you’re racist’). She’s also been holding back a certain secret from them.
As separate as these worlds may appear, they both form an inescapable part of Zara’s reality and identity. So much so that in this production, there’s no separation on stage between the scenes with Zara’s family and with her housemate. Zara transitions between each world by wondering in and out of the opposing two sides of the set. Although the focus of the scene may have shifted, the characters from the other world will sometimes linger on stage.
Playwright, Danusia Samal, has created a deeply intimate piece that’s filled with humour, love and also searing pain. It draws on Samal’s personal and specific observations while growing up in a Muslim family in London. We see the cost of assimilating into British culture and the feeling of isolation and lack of belonging this can bring. Zara battles with this internal struggle, although she tries to suppress her frustrations, we see that it manifests itself in other troubling ways.
Although the observations may be specific, Out of Sorts touches on a human experience that should strongly resonate with anyone who recognises the position that Zara is in. In the times we’re in, the play carries strong meaning and pertinence, but I worry a lot of the humour may have been lost on the Thursday night audience.
This production has assembled an excellent cast. Under the skilful direction of Tanuja Amarasuriya, each member works together to ground you in each of the contrasting realities. As the play unfolds, you are convinced of the balancing act that Zara has to do to straddle both environments.
Although on the surface Zara seems to have gravitated towards the western world, we see how she’s not entirely on the same page with her best friend Alice. Alice is outwardly embracing of people from cultures different to her own, but as the play progresses we see that not only does she woefully misunderstand Zara but also her boyfriend Anthony (Claudius Peters) who has Nigerian heritage. Although Antony is intelligent and attentive, Alice just sees him as an exotic piece of arm candy.
In the play, we also see this conflict as Zara’s family attempt to integrate into London. Her principled father Hussein (Nayef Rashed), tells of his distressing experience as a cab driver and how his ideas of living in London have not matched the reality.
The sister Fatima, brilliantly portrayed by Oznur Cifci, starkly contrasts with Zara. Fatima is a tough nut and unashamed of her family and her culture. Fatima speaks passionately about her aspirations to create an Uber service by and for Muslim women who are fed up of feeling threatened anytime a drunk white boy comes onto a bus. She also challenges Zara on whether London can ever be considered a home for the family.
Of the loud personalities we see, Zara’s wise mother, Layla (Myriam Acharki) is the glue of the family who is forever accommodating and seeks to keep the peace. But in one of the play’s most moving scenes, Layla confesses that she faces battles of her own. Despite her calm and sweet exterior, we see that Layla is troubled and is keen to shake off the label that she’s just a war-victim and a refugee.
Often the hardest shows to write about are the ones where you’ve deeply admired all that it has been able to convey. Try as you might to capture the experience in words, it will most likely fall short of doing justice to everything that the production was able to achieve. The best thing I can suggest is to see this poignant and stirring show for yourself.
Out of Sorts is running at Theatre503 until 2 November 2019 at the time of writing.
Photo Credit: Helen Murray