Review by Harry Bower
Returning to London’s Soho Theatre for a second time, Karim Khan’s story of two Muslim teenagers learning to swim while at school in Oxford is a brilliant coming of age tale which intelligently and succinctly addresses so much more than just a lack of aqua ability. Kash and Mohsen are boys with a glint in their eye and a banter-filled rapport, each thriving on winding the other up. It’s this timeless school-boy ribbing which builds a solid foundation for the pair’s friendship as they transition into adulthood and their relationship becomes strained. School life is about to get a whole lot more interesting when Kash secures an invitation to a popular girl’s upcoming pool party. There’s one problem. Neither boy can swim.
What follows is a seventy-five-minute masterclass in storytelling, through which we watch the boys grow into their personalities, learn to appreciate and accept each other’s differences, and grapple with the brutal reality of every life experience laced by racism. Both are fiercely confident in their assertions. Kash, bolshy and full of life, thinks he’s god’s gift, can beat the Oxford rowing team at a canter, and knows he can definitely bed his teacher. Mohsen is more shy but just as intelligent, wise beyond his years and devastatingly witty in the face of his best pal’s naivety.
Both graduates less than two years on the scene is Ibraheem Hussain and Kashif Ghole, playing Mohsen and Kash respectively, not that you could tell. Yes, both are blessed with fantastic material, but I was very impressed by how much heart each performer bought to their role. In what is now one of my favourite endings of any show I’ve seen this year, Hussain and Ghole are electric and captivating. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself welling up.
No subject matter seems too vast or complex for Khan to tackle in his writing. Together Kash and Mohsen debate their cultural upbringing and the rules they were taught to follow, as their paths meander and converge, and experience harsh realities of islamophobia. The play doesn’t shy away from such powerful themes but also doesn’t allow them to dominate in a way which feels preachy or overtly pointed. Each character has their increasingly entrenched views and despite some voice raising, the writing imparts a quiet respect, as though the presentation of remonstrations should be for the audience to judge rather than a lesson to be learned. That is a delicate balancing act but one Khan nails with aplomb.
Throughout the piece there is an outstanding soundscape by Roshan Gunga which fully immerses everyone in the world, particularly when the boys are swimming. The timing of each effect and the quality of the sound completely melts away any sense of staging and at times I genuinely forgot that these are two clothed actors pretending to swim. Everything is choreographed so well by movement director Sita Thomas that each setting had its own distinct vibe, and each character their own instantly recognisable gait.
The production features overall seriously impressive and complete direction by John Hoggarth, no doubt honed now over multiple runs. For a show which has such limited set, I was surprised that none of the scenes seemed repetitive. An imaginative use of space, props and lighting does a staggeringly good job of demarking spaces and creating new scenes. That’s aided by the on-stage outfit changes which add space for poignancy and for big moments to breathe, as well as indicating a passing of time.
I absolutely loved Brown Boys Swim. It’s not perfect – some scenes could benefit from tightening up and the overall plot is somewhat predictable which might dampen the closing twist for some. It is, however, a brilliant example of how art can address a plethora of societal issues and educate its audience without preaching. Body image, toxic masculinity, islamophobia, growing up Muslim in modern Britain; the play touches on all this and more in a mature and intelligent manner with a huge dose of comedic value thrown in. Laugh out loud moments release tension in an otherwise deceptively straightforward plotline. When it’s time to land the punch, though, Khan’s writing delivers in spades. The whole thing is wrapped up in some outstanding sound design and deftly delivered by two brilliant performances. So, what are you waiting for? Take the plunge, and buy a ticket.
Brown Boys Swim plays at Soho Theatre until 07 October 2023, and then goes on tour around the UK. For more information and tickets visit https://sohotheatre.com/events/brown-boys-swim/
Photos by Geraint Lewis