What links Laurence of Arabia, Vegan bacon, bingo and burkas? The answers lie within a fantastic new ‘clash of the cultures’ play.
Habibti Driver, receiving its world premiere tonight, follows the relationship between Egyptian Muslim cab driver Ashraf, and his ‘Habibti’ half Egyptian, half Wiganese daughter Shazia.
The mischief starts when Ashraf (Dana Haqjoo) introduces Shazia (Shamia Chalabi) to his new Egyptian bride, whilst she is attempting to break the news of her own secret engagement.
Based on Chalabi’s real-life experiences and co-written with Sarah Henley, the play, described as ‘East Meets Wigan’, explores the clashes, compromises and comedy that come with living in a mixed-culture family in today’s Britain.
Thanks to a superb script that is funny and moving in equal parts, sublime casting, and the deft direction of Sepy Baghaei, Habibti Driver is a brilliant showcase for independent theatre. Beneath the surface of two cultures colliding are universal themes of acceptance, nostalgia, and generational tensions of traditional and modern values.
The characters, brought to life with immense skill by our cast, never descend into stereotype instead remaining relatable and warm. Haqjoo, complete with amusing English mispronunciations, is so likeable as Ashraf that, despite his old-fashioned ideas around the role of women, you absolutely root for him and his ambition to make his millions by launching his brand of ‘special sauce’ relish.
He and the charmingly feisty Chalabi have a fantastic dynamic throughout that makes the father-daughter relationship utterly believable.
Houda Echouafni as new wife Yasmin, and Timothy O’Hara as prospective fiancé Chris, provide excellent support. Yasmin’s progress integrating into her new Western lifestyle is delivered with wit and warmth (and a weapons-grade ability to apply lipstick whilst singing and being spun around in a car seat.)
Chris’ stumbling attempts to win over his future Father-in-law and embrace his fiancée’s heritage are hilarious and the right side of cringe-inducing, reminding us that even the best intentions can go horribly awry.
And Helen Sheals as ex-wife Jean and Hemi Yeroham as Ashram’s brother Yusuf are their own fully rounded characters, bringing a humorous mix of insight and irritation to our humble cabby. Kaitlin Howard’s fight direction gives us one of the most memorable scenes as tensions between Ashram and Yusuf boil over, leading to an immensely enjoyable physical struggle over Ashram’s cab.
The taxi is the lynchpin for all of tonight’s action, staged in a 3/4 round, and cleverly designed by Helen Coyston to be moved around by the cast so that seats can be positioned in multiple angles or adjusted to suggest other vehicles, together or apart so that, at no point, is the performance obscured for any member of the audience.
This turns scene changes into a unique ballet, with additional praise due to Movement Director Jennifer Jackson, for the energy and momentum this maintains, right up to the all-dancing finale.
There really is nothing that could be faulted in tonight’s show. With a nod towards similar stories (‘East is East’ and Omid Djalili’s ‘The Infidel’ come to mind), everything feels authentic, warm and charming, despite the head-on collision with the uglier side of society, as our ensemble deals with the fallout of racist attacks and intolerance. And even though the Wigan references are highly specific, the script could easily be adapted to any working-class town in the UK to keep the jokes accessible.
Tonight clearly leaves its audience with a spring in their step (and a hankering for ‘Hobby-Nobbies’). It’s a highly recommended opportunity to experience your very own helping of a show that brings its very own brand of special sauce.
Habibti Driver plays till Sat 7th May, including matinees and accessible performances. For tickets visit https://octagonbolton.co.uk/whats-on/
Reviewer: Lou Steggals
Reviewed: 25 April 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★