It’s no insult to Aisha to say that it’s very much an issue play, concerning the forced marriage of young girls to much older men. The name is presumably a reference to the ever-controversial subject of the age of the prophet Muhammad’s wife at the time of their marriage (and its consummation), though if so writer/director AJ chooses not to expand on this.
But if that makes it sound like a distant problem, the Home Office estimates that between 5,000-8,000 children a year are at risk of forced marriage in the UK – although one of the strengths of this production is that it gives us little clue where we are geographically. We see everything through the eyes of the now 17 year old Aisha, who is forbidden ever to leave the house, outsiders being fobbed off with the story that she suffers from agoraphobia if they’re aware of her existence at all.
Aisha also acts as narrator, addressing the audience directly when not interacting with other characters. Indeed, it’s a long time before we meet another character at all, and when we do, he scarcely speaks – his character is conveyed almost entirely by Aisha’s obvious terror of him. Into this still and almost silent world eventually bursts the brash Mr White, a white van man who manages to pack more Daily Mailisms into a five minute speech than I think even Paul Dacre could manage. And yes, when he’s had a few and stumbles upon the sleeping Aisha, we’re treated to the revelation that child abuse isn’t solely an African or Muslim phenomenon.
I’m the last person to want theatre to provide escapist froth – all the same, one has to review the play itself rather than the issue it tackles. First-time writer/director AJ describes the play as “rhythmic verse, heavily influenced by contemporary spoken word”, and with lines like “He drowns my anus in phlegm”, we soon realise we’re a long way from Wordsworth’s daffodils. His writing is punchy and energetic, if sometimes a little on the nose, but to my mind, his inexperience as a director shows through more – scenes are often glacially slow, presumably on the assumption that this will lend them added profundity, and the hour and a half seems long towards the end.
What can’t be argued with, though, is the astonishing performance of Laura Adebisi as Aisha – she’s on stage already when we come in and thereafter never leaves it, showing us an emotional range that not many actresses of her age could match (and not many roles would require). Ayo Oyelakin, though obviously way younger than the 51 year old character he’s portraying, provides able support.