For a play concerned with the controversial questions of immigration and mobilization in the Middle East, the pace and momentum with which Multitudes by John Hollingworth unfolds make it a current reflection Britain’s internal state of affairs.
Most of the momentum rises from the context of the play. Set in Bradford, problems arise when a peaceful protest camp is established by the city’s Muslim population in anticipation of the arrival of the Prime Minister for a Conservative Party conference. However, most of the friction is consolidated in the multiple identities of the characters, who aren’t so much deep as varied. Kash (Navin Chowdry) must give a speech at the conference as a British man and as a Muslim. The stress to marry his girlfriend Natalie (Clare Calbraith) upon her unexpected conversion to Islam, the weighty opinions of Natalie’s reserved and xenophobic mother Lyn (Jacqueline King), and the rebellious snark and radical actions of his daughter Qadira (Salma Hoque) all build upon and add to the tension. The intimacy of Tricycle Theatre–with its precarious seating, lingering aromas of musk and smoke, and hearth-like stage–provides the perfect setting for a play which is really a crisis period for the modern, multicultural family.
While they are somewhat contrived, the play will resonate with audiences in that the characters –archetypal at best, predictable at worst– are familiar. Lyn, with her daisy bushes and Radio 4, represents the older generations with deep roots in the English countryside, as she would rather scrape away at a scuff in the floor than she would stand in a mosque and witness her daughter’s conversion. On the other hand, Qadira is the bold youth of perpetual teenage angst, angry with the world to the point of rebellion. Whether she torches the British flag in protest, or simply riles Kash and Natalie by slurping her Coke, Qadira’s actions all originate from the same area of desire to be tolerated, universal for both Muslims and young adults.
The archetypal characterization does make the second half of play, which focuses more on plot line, entirely predictable and disinteresting. However, stereotypes allow for a good deal of humor in the first half.
Yet the comedy is not without its purpose. The fencing backdrops, which are continuously manipulated to frame the scenes, allow for a walling off to occur between the humor and the darkness of its implications. It’s funny that Kash is responsible for knowing “all the brown thoughts” and it’s funny that Lyn should think Scandinavians are the happiest people because everything from their hair to their houses is the same. But should it be, when racial tension lingers behind every word?
In short, if you were to only stay until the interval, Multitudes would definitely be worth experiencing. It only gets three stars because so much of the plot line is contrived, and we would be bored if it weren’t for the unusually uncomfortable yet satisfying comedy. And if you won’t go for the comedy, then go for the relevance: while the characters may lack a little in invention, they are definitely recognizable in the news, especially as more young British Muslim women are reported as heading to Syria and ISIS. There’s certainly no time like the present for this play, as any emotional impact would be lost without this context.