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English at Kiln Theatre | Review

Writer Sanaz Toossi’s five-character play English, first premiered off-Broadway in February 2022, a moment in history when Iran was not making daily headlines, and prior to the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini in September 2022 for an ‘improper wearing’ of her headscarf. The harsh punishments meted out to tens of thousands of young demonstrators who took to the streets after Amini’s death make it difficult to connect with the comedic moments of the characters in Toossi’s play who struggle to learn English in an adult education class in a Tehran suburb. It certainly ceased to be on the curriculum in Iran’s State schools following the civil unrest that continued into 2023. And a sense of a limited cultural environment does make its way into the play.

English at Kiln Theatre. Photo credit: Richard Davenport.
English at Kiln Theatre. Photo credit: Richard Davenport.

Upon entering the Kiln Theatre, the nondescript tone of the stage setting (Anisha Fields) denotes a clinical setting devoid of passion and aspiration. Colourless and bland, it is not a space you’d want to spend much time in. Two words on a blackboard ‘English Only’, hint at its use as a language-learning facility.

Four students enter, each with a common goal – to prepare for TOEFL – the Test of English as a Foreign Language. Twenty-eight-year-old Elham (Serena Manteghi), challenging and competitive, needs a high test score to be accepted to an Australian medical school; Roya (Lanna Joffrey) wants to learn English to communicate with her grandchild in Canada; while teen-age Goli (Sara Hazemi) the most easy-going of the student quartet, experiences an exalted status when she speaks English; and Omid (Nojan Khazai) a proficient English speaker, seems out of place with his extensive knowledge of American slang – why is he there?

Marjan (Nadia Albina), the language teacher, reeks with false positivity and unease. When the students lapse into their native Farsi, Marjan chalks this up on the blackboard, a ‘five strikes and you’re out’ scenario. The students play word games, shouting out American nouns for things found in a kitchen – stove, fridge, microwave, pressure cooker – while passing around a basketball. It’s a fierce competition game, unearthing feelings of jealousy, incompetence and who in the room is the teacher’s pet. Marjan, perhaps because of her inner disquiet, evokes argumentative behaviours. The students lapse into rapid speech when expressing their discontent, a clever directorial instruction (Diyan Zora) to make it apparent the characters have switched to speaking Farsi, and as the play progresses the need to speak Farsi threatens the very structure of the play – is it about the difficulties of learning English or something much more disturbing to express.

English seems to explore the essence of linguistic imperialism and the questions it raises for those forced to forsake their own language for economic reasons and job advancement, in essence, erasing the beauty inherent in Persian poetry and the Farsi language itself.

Or is the language of the foreigner simply a metaphor for Iran’s takeover by a brutal theocracy, one that is ‘a foreigner’ to the values of Iran’s twentieth-century struggle towards democracy and women’s rights? It is difficult to become invested in the play’s characters because of a suggestion that the play is about something else. See English to form your own conclusions, especially since Iran is fast becoming a powerful player on the global stage.

3 Star Review

Review by Loretta Monaco

Nadia Albina – Marjan
Sara Hazemi – Goli
Lanna Joffrey – Roya
Nojan Khazai – Omid
Serena Monteghi – Elham

Diyan Zora: Director
Sanaz Toossi: Writer
Anisha Fields: Set & Costume Designer
Elliot Griggs: Lighting Designer
Maria Tarokh: Movement Director
George Dennis: Sound Designer
Edda Sharpe: Voice and Text
Lotte Hines CDG: Casting Director
Sara Amini: Assistant Director

‘In this room, we are native speakers. We think in English. We laugh in English. Our inhales, our exhales – we fill our lungs in English.’

A classroom in Iran. Four adult classmates grapple with learning English as a foreign language. As they attempt to perfect their accents, pronunciation and vocabulary, they realise that there is more to their lives than can ever be uttered through language.

The Royal Shakespeare Company in association with Kiln Theatre present
The European première of
By Sanaz Toossi
Kiln Theatre
5 to 29 June 2024

The Ballad of Hattie and James at the Kiln Theatre


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