Review: The Black Album, National Theatre

Based on Hanif Kureishi’s 1995 novel of the same title, The Black Album takes up residence in the Cottesloe Theatre at the National. It’s a look at a Asian student’s experience of going to university in London in a pre-9/11 world, specifically around the time of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989 and the beginnings of the radicalisation of some extreme groups. Originally from Kent, Shahid is torn between the fun student life, complete with affairs with lecturers, that he discovers there and the pressures of his Muslim friends who want him to retreat from the excesses of Western living.

The story has taken on a much more powerful resonance in this post 9/11 world and as such, has the potential to be an incisive examination of British Muslim identity and the pressures it faced at a time of crucial change. And whilst the play does deal with some of these issues, it never really tackles them head on and it sometimes felt like there was a little lack of conviction about the proceedings. There’s never a real sense of just how ominous the direction that the extremists are heading in is and whilst I can’t say that I did not enjoy the play, I just feel like it is a bit of a missed opportunity.

As the student Shahid, Jonathan Bonnici makes an impressive stage debut, initially full of wide-eyed naïveté and enthusiasm for university life, but soon becoming weighed down by the gravity of the choices that he is forced to make. Tanya Franks is good as the lecturer in some horrific nineties threads, but Nitin Jundra was guilty of some excessive hamminess as the brother, and I hope he tones it down before the opening night.

The play is staged quite inventively, with three blank walls having a range of video projections on them to demonstrate the different locations (it looks better than it sounds honest!) but the constant hefting around of the desk by the cast drove me mad by the end. One issue was that the lighting was extremely dark: I could barely see onstage and I was in the fifth row, so I can’t imagine how people further back fared. And the soundtrack, provided by Sister Bliss of Faithless, is quite obstrusively loud at times and sometimes misplaced.

Hopefully some of these issues will have been ironed out by the end of the preview period, as I do think there is a good play in there somewhere.

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