Rifco Theatre Company, renowned for sharing the untold stories of British Asian communities in public spaces, goes one step further with their latest production, which played Derby Theatre (24-27th October). Conceived by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti and Pravesh Kumar, Dishoom reveals the challenging stories of multiple oppression, cross-cultural conflict and not-quite-belonging. Review by Sonali Shah
Dishoom starts in 1962, in a English hospital where a disabled baby boy is born to a young Punjabi couple. With flashing neon lights, high-energy Bollywood music, and a swift scene change we are taken forward in time, landing in a 1978 living room, convincingly gaudy, with an ambitious set design (Neil Irish) and costume design (Andy Kumar).
Centre stage, Bilal Khan makes his first debut as 16 year old Simon, the once disabled baby, who has just finished school and is wondering about the future, like the other teenagers in his neighbourhood.
A gold star to Rifco for casting an authentic wheelchair-user for the role instead of allowing a well-known non-disabled actor to crip up (the blacking up of the disabled world, for those not familiar with the concept). This is a practice that happens all too often in the mainstream arts world.
Simon is indeed a major character in the play, and on stage throughout (which is probably more about his ease of access on and off stage rather than the role). However, Dishroom is not only Simon’s story. It is about friendships and relationships; about a mixed community coming together and being pulled apart through cultural, economic and political turbulence.
The characters each have memorable personalities and stories which shine through. They are both likeable and dislikeable over the course of the play, except Bibi who is deliberately dislikeable throughout. Bibi (cleverly played by Seema Bowri) is constantly bullying her son (Omar Ibrahim) for not marrying again after the death of his wife, driving him to spend a noticeable amount of his time in his local pub. She also has a fractious relationship with Simon, trying to hide him away or normalise him to be more like the ‘perfect’ grandson she had hoped for who won’t bring shame to the family.
Simon’s friends are also struggling to find an identity and a sense of belonging, and this puts strains on their friendships. Keith (James Race) is persuaded to join the National Front after being rejected from a much hoped-for office job which was offered to an Indian girl.
His personality suddenly changes, as do his outfits. He no longer treats Simon’s dad as an uncle, but as an enemy who “…shouldn’t be in our pubs, infecting our air”.
Mark (Elijah Baker) also becomes confused as to where he fits given that his parents are from different racial backgrounds. Donna (Georgia Burnell), can’t wait to get away and explore the world, but her pretty face and slim figure attract unwanted unhelpful male attention.
The play is interspersed by re-enactments of Sholay, the iconic Hindi movie of the 1970s, which removes the characters from the complexities of their everyday lives and transforms them into the heroes and villains from the film. Simon, and his geeky, witty and gradually loveable cousin Baljit (Gurkiran Kaur) seem to always play the heroes with the power to chase and to pull a gun on anyone who annoys them. Dishoom! is the sound that bullet would make.
Dishoom definitely triggered moments of mixed emotions and remembrances of my own childhood as a British Asian disabled kid of the 70s. The derogatory comments around parenting a disabled child – “I knew on your wedding day your soul is black” – and being a disabled child – “can’t have that chair inside my shop… If you can’t stand up you aren’t coming in” – struck a few minor chords. However, tears of nostalgia only fell during the dance sequence to the Hindi song Mehbooba (Beloved), a favourite of mine which I danced to with my father as a child at Navratri. I even recall wearing a yellow chaniya choli, but I never did the seductive belly dance like Donna or her Sholay character.
Dishoom unlocks stories of disability, racial divides and punctured dreams, taking them to new audiences via vibrant colour, high-energy music and captivating (if a little over complex) characters who might benefit from being slightly less shouty. Although the bi-lingual English/Punjabi dialogue is powerful, it could do with a trim here and there, leaving room for a few silences.
However, Dishoom is a very important play to stage, exploring intersectional stories and relationships which are often left untold. Although based in the 70s, it explores many tensions which are relevant today, reminding us how not to repeat mistakes of the past. It also reminds us how much has progressed since that time. For one, actors are no longer required to black up, crip up or cross-dress on the UK stage.
Dishoom toured theatres in Hornchurch, Oldham, Warwick and Derby from 25th September to 27th October For further information visit https://www.rifcotheatre.com/