Martin Askew’s first full-length play’s debut at Theatre 503 is a strong and affecting start thanks to energetic and charismatic performances by its two male leads, Sam Frenchum, as Mark/Abdullah, and Archie Backhouse, as Saleh, but reveals Askew as a not yet fully-formed dramatist. With a rich premise and tuneful dialogue for his male characters, Askew, unfortunately, fails to create equally convincing and nuanced female characters and tends to overwrite world-building at the expense of the dramatic journey. Nonetheless, this two-act topical drama is well-staged by director Esther Baker and delivers humour, suspense and plenty of stimuli for conversation in the bar afterwards.
There is a Field centres around East End lad and recovering heroin addict Mark who has taken the name Abdullah. Having got clean and converted to Islam, we meet this zealous young man sympathetically offering comfort to vagrants on the streets of Whitechapel whilst ironically lecturing his best friend Saleh (a Keats-quoting university graduate working in a dry cleaning shop) who introduced him to the faith, on the finer points of theology. However, we soon discover that Abdullah’s religious zeal is fraught with unreasonable judgements of others, conspiracy theories and sensation-seeking that escalates towards fanaticism. Saleh suspects the friend he’s saved with Islam is now being groomed by ‘Google Sheikhs’ into an altogether more dangerous and disturbed person.
Whilst the play pulls no punches in exploring radicalisation, it is essentially a family drama cum buddy story set in an emotionally repressed and physically violent urban working-class culture where all the characters long for love and acceptance – exploring the tensions between inherited and acquired identity. The premise and setting are compelling but some scenes are too ‘talky’ and feel as if they are still at the workshop stage. Likewise, whilst the core relationship between Abdullah and Saleh is rich and nuanced, other members of the family, such as wide-boy brother Tony, lack depth despite Fabrizio Santino’s impressive stage presence in the role.
The play’s central concept and this production’s direction and cast are strong enough to capture the audience’s attention but the work particularly lets us down with one-dimensional drawings of Abdullah’s mother, Maureen, and Saleh’s wife, Amina, whose virtue is conveyed in large part through their preparation of food and baths. Sarah Finnigan, as Mark’s recently widowed salt-of-the-earth mum, demonstrates her considerable talent as an actress in a role that hasn’t offered her much more than a stereotypical cockney matriarch. In the second act, we observe a lengthy ‘reckoning’ scene between Abdullah and his mother in which Finnigan’s performance is powerful but the material’s pace clashes with the rest of the play and undermines the dramatic moment.
Even less nuance is afforded to Amina (played by Roseanna Frascona), Saleh’s pregnant wife who serves as a depiction of the Islam of love and peace. Amina’s lines largely come across as commentary and exposition rather than the authentic voice of a fully-drawn character. Askew shows a fine ear for convincing dialogue when spoken by the mouths of the three male characters but tends to offer only a single and uninspiring note to his women. The lack of depth for his female characters is especially problematic given the contentious gender comments within the dialogue. Whilst it is clear Abdullah’s sexism is a symptom of increasingly extreme views, the work fails to illustrate a big enough contrast through any other elements of the play and misses many an opportunity to reveal the interior worlds of its women.
There is a Field is an interesting drama brought to life by an impressive cast but not as strong as it might have been had Askew given complexity and richness to more than the two principal characters.
Review by Mary Beer
“Why you all looking at me like that? Eh? You never seen a real Muslim before?
Is it cos I’m white?”
Esther Baker will direct Martin Askew’s provocative and compelling new play There is a Field, a London story of faith, death and family strife reshaped by local crises and global events.
Mark’s mother wants him to bury his father and it’s up to Saleh to find him and bring him home for a proper East End send off. Only Mark is no longer Mark, he’s Abdullah.
There is a Field is a play about two friends who, in a different life, could have been brothers.
The full cast includes Archie Backhouse (Saleh), Sarah Finigan (Maureen), Roseanna Frascona (Amina), Sam Frenchum (Mark/Abdullah) and Fabrizio Santino (Tony).
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Synergy Theatre Project in association with Theatre503 presents
There is a Field
By Martin Askew
WRITER – Martin Askew
DIRECTOR – Esther Baker
DESIGNERS – Katy McPhee and Patrick Bill
LIGHTING DESIGNER – Tony Simpson
SOUND DESIGNER – Sarah Weltman
ASSISTANT DIRECTOR – Danielle Baker
CASTING DIRECTOR – Nadine Rennie CDG
PRODUCTION MANAGER – Steve Wald
COMPANY STAGE MANAGER – Katie Patrick
STAGE MANAGER – Michael Smith
ASSISTANT STAGE MANAGER – Trey Foster
MARK/ABDULLAH – Sam Frenchum
SALEH – Archie Backhouse
AMINA – Roseanna Frascona
MAUREEN – Sarah Finigan
TONY – Fabrizio Santino
Wednesday 20 February to Saturday 16 March 2019 at Theatre503