Play: Approaching Empty
Playwright: Ishy Din
Theatre: Kiln Theatre
Director: Pooja Ghai
Review by Joy Francis
Award-winning playwright Ishy Din’s charm, humour and unconventional route into playwrighting, after years as a taxi driver, has found a home in his latest production Approaching Empty.
Based in a Middlesbrough minicab office in the wake of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s death, the play straddles cultural, class and gender politics, with uneven results.
Lifelong friends, 55 year old Mansha (Kammy Darweish) and Raf (Nicholas Khan) have spent decades working together in King’s Cars, a minicab firm that has seen better days. Trade is slow and ruthless new competitor Fleet Cars is eating into its dwindling market share.
Owned by Raf and managed by Mansha, King’s Cars was forged out of the free market thrust of Thatcherism in the 1980s. But relentless deindustrialisation has increased competition leading Raf to lose his footing as a local lad made good and cling on tightly to the dog eat dog philosophy.
Optimistic and naive Mansha badgers Raf to modernise by recruiting drivers with their own cars and invest in the business. But Raf only wants to play with the big boys without spending a penny.
Other divisions between them surface, triggered by Thatcher’s death. Raf believes business is about making loads of money and reveres the controversial premier. Mansha, who hates “the bitch”, is deeply nostalgic about the good old days; when he worked in a steel factory, put in the hours, bought his home and saw the value of his work on people’s everyday lives.
On the warpath, Raf force feeds his capitalistic obsession to his reluctant business undergraduate son Shazad (Karan Gill) who he orders to sit in the cab office to learn the ‘trade’. Another of Raf’s choices that doesn’t sit well with Mansha is his recruitment of female ex-con Sameena (Rina Fatania), newly released from prison. Old fashion and set in his ways, Mansha doesn’t believe cabbing is for women.
Mansha isn’t immune from double-dealing as he throws the best jobs the way of his son-in-law Sully (Nicholas Prasad) and gives Sameena the scraps. He is also convinced he would be a better boss, after choosing not to take the first offer on King’s Cars, which he regrets. Raf throws a curve ball by admitting he may sell to his hated rivals. Terrified of losing his comfort blanket, Mansha offers to buy it from Raf, despite not having the £120,000 to match what has been offered.
Secrets and lies multiply when Fleet pulls out of the deal, leading Raf to act as if the offer is still on the table. Mansha takes the bait as his misguided desire to live his unfulfilled dream is too tantalising. He manipulates Sully into parting with his inheritance from his dead father to invest in owning King’s Cars. Sully tells Sameena who offers her share of the future sale of her deceased parents’ house. Everyone wants a way out of their low grade, low income lives by making a quick buck.
All isn’t what it seems after they give Raf the money under the table. Friendships are betrayed. Family relationships implode. Lives are threatened. And Mansha, Sameena, Sully and Shazad are exposed to the brutal underbelly of the drug world, headed by Sameena’s unstable drug kingpin brother Tany (Maanuv Thiara).
The cast is solid, especially the verbal sparring between Kammy Darweish’s charmingly frustrating Mansha and Nicholas Khan’s deeply flawed Raf. Rina Fatania is hilarious as Sameena and I expect her to break in to a stand up comedy routine at any moment. It takes a while for the play to get going in the first half, but the second act is compelling, emotionally-charged and feels like a fleshed out drama.
Designer Rosa Maggiora’s minicab interior, built by The Scenery Shop, is truly evocative of a 1980s cab office – with its oversized map, shabby furniture and handwritten signs about cleanliness that everyone ignores.
Peppered with humour and pathos, Approaching Empty feels more eighties than 2013, but it is still relevant with the class and regional divisions swirling around Brexit. The play also shows the economic, class and cultural pressures facing working class Asian men – and women – in the North, and the slippery slope of buying into Thatcherism.
Approaching Empty is at Kiln Theatre until 2 February 2019.