Naomi Simpson reviews Ambreen Razia’s play, which deals with the merging of teenage culture and multi-culturalism, encouraging us all to value the power of listening and understanding in our noisy world
For teenagers in the 2010s, there is a sense of refuge in a mobile phone. A constantly available escape portal, we carried (and continue to carry) them around, ready to unlock and dive into the filtered worlds we aspired to which were so much more enticing than teenage reality. It is from this wanderlust-filled perspective that Nyla Levy takes to the stage, with a colloquial, realistic and hilarious depiction of life as a young Muslim girl growing up in Hounslow, West London. A modern, urban depiction of the classic story of a young girl falling in love and finding her way out of it, The Diary of a Hounslow Girl captures adolescent longing in quick-witted dialogue and camera phone recordings.
Written by Ambreen Razia, the performance was supported by Black Theatre Live, an organisation of 8 theatres around the country which aims to support the work of BAME companies and artists. In a cultural context which is predominantly white, the work of organisations like this is widening the scope of theatre nationwide. From the audience’s reception at the Belgrade Theatre Coventry’s first showing of the play, the performance tapped in perfectly to that universal sense of restlessness that hits during adolescence and finds an outlet in humour, friendship and a little heartbreak. Levy plays the role of Shaheeda, a feisty dreamer who wishes nothing more than to travel the world with her boyfriend. Disconnected from her mother and her family’s cultural heritage, she provides a poignant insight into what it means to be a young woman of faith in Britain.
From the start, Levy’s performance hummed with energy as she bounded around the claustrophobic bedroom set. Leaping onto the bed in excitement, miming a fight on a bus or simply gazing wistfully, she captured all the mercurial emotions of first loves and family fights, with a constant eye turned to the humour in each situation. Most engaging however, were the moments in which Shaheeda discussed her faith. We are familiar with the feckless teen narrative, of the media demonising teenagers as unruly or dangerous, but the idea of a religious teenager is far less familiar and therefore infinitely more interesting. With touching honesty, Levy delivered lines which dug to the heart of religious uncertainty and faith in a modern British context, particularly in relation to a growing sense of sexuality and independence. The Diary of a Hounslow Girl takes the classic coming of age story and gives it a modern, multicultural twist for the Britain we live in today: one in which young women wear Nike Air Maxes and hijabs simultaneously, in which they smoke and pray and come closer to understanding themselves through apparent contradictions than outdated certainties.
There is an urgency surrounding the discussion of multiculturalism in Britain today which should not be ignored and Razia’s play offered perhaps the best way into this discussion which we have found yet. This play could certainly be enjoyed simply as a touching and entertaining piece of theatre, but it also feels far more powerful than this. In The Diary of a Hounslow Girl, the audience gains an insight into the reality of a life which is often ignored in the media or silenced in different ways. The power of the story which emerged onstage when this silencing was overcome is a testament to the value of listening to the array of voices out there. More of the same please, Britain.