Shaheed is from Sevenoaks and a hip, charismatic, Prince-loving student. At university he meets Riaz and is drawn into a different world. He discovers an Islamic fraternity which brings him both a sense of identity and introduces a new brotherly tenderness into his life. But it also threatens to derail his progressive, liberal mindset and soon an ugly bigotry rears its head.
The second half of the play is darker in tone as Riaz and colleagues ratchet up the violence towards Salman Rushdie, his controversial new novel and its perceived sympathisers. Shaheed is challenged by everyone around him to decide his own position.
Unfortunately the scattergun, breathless staging does not correspond to much dramatic tension. It is energetic but at the same time tokenistic, summing up positions in glib speechmaking. There is little sense of the characters’ inner lives and we do not really see beneath the didactic personae. There are some genuinely comic moments but little human warmth. The ensemble cast are enthusiastic but are hampered by the breakneck pace, which tends to prevent anything but the more perfunctory range of emotional states to exist.
This Black Album is a stage adaptation by Kureishi from his own novel. Sadly, the play does not quite shed its literary shackles – some scenes feel dramatically inert whilst others are episodic and perfunctory. The pace is so frenetic that the acting and setting, at times, become sit-com-esque, bringing to mind a cross between Trainspotting and Only Fools and Horses.
Kureishi is one of the original 80s’ voices and here, as in his other works, he is tackling important issues, including identity, integration and censorship. Unfortunately in neither the adaptation nor this production does he manage to make his mark or make us care.