[The Cobbled Streets of Geneva], VAULT Festival

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By Keagan Fransch

Adham is a bodyguard, steady and serious, and a stickler for propriety and safe proximity. Raushan is an excitable and curious Imam with a joy for life and an (almost) unshakeable positivity that’s hard to resist. On a rainy day in London, outside Raushan’s mosque, the two unlikely companions strike up a conversation that leads to an odd-couple friendship that changes and grows as they do. However, when Adham asks Raushan to pretend to be his husband (so that he can avoid being ‘set-up’ by his boss), their easy friendship is inevitably put to a difficult test.

What is pretense and what is real is at the heart of this story, and writer Nemo Martin’s witty and poignant examination of this begs the question: is pretense, in favour of living one’s truth, really the better option? Is fear of judgement reason enough to compromise one’s happiness? Martin paints a picture of two opposing sides: a bodyguard whose ability to make quick judgements of people keeps his clients alive, and an inquisitive Imam who at every turn chooses to act according to a central tenet of Islam – love and acceptance. Curiosity and informed discernment is the route Raushan always chooses, and his “infuriating optimism”, as Adham calls it, is the gem of the play.

We empathise with these characters and keenly feel the ache that comes from not being able to live with authenticity. It’s refreshing that the play is not overtly about race, and doesn’t force us to watch yet another depiction of a western view of Islam. However, it certainly threatens to go down that route with casual mentions of bombs in airports, and a less casual moment when a desperate Adham tries to steer the conversation toward the pain of stereotypes and misunderstood ideology. This feels heavy-handed and unnecessary, given the prevalence of that depiction of Muslims in media – indeed, Adham asks Raushan “would you want me to believe everything the media says about you?”. These two Muslim characters in their small world already carry the weight of assumptions and misrepresentations from the outside. A long shadow of this is cast over this pair; I shuffle in my seat hoping we don’t go there. How wonderful it is then to have the characters mostly talk about things that non-Muslim characters in media are always allowed to talk about – love, joy and living truthfully – and how frustrating that this is rare enough to be deemed wonderful.

The simple set of two movable chairs and two cobblestone patches attached to the back wall – which look more like Tetris blocks than cobblestone due to the particular shape and colour – are used to good effect to give quick, spatial context to each scene. There is a train, a hotel room, a restaurant. They also serve to play with proximity, and give a physical suggestion and insight into unspoken, underlying desire for intimacy. These simple yet effective moments are, however, almost completely undermined by the under-rehearsed, often long and certainly unnecessary transitions between scenes. The constant return to a prolonged blue-state, in which the actors change into costumes that don’t add new context beyond what the exposition-laden dialogue provides, only stalls the piece. They interrupt any sense of rhythm or pace that the text and actors have worked to build. These are further stymied by odd jumps backwards in time that – aside from two initial instances of never-to-be-seen-again narration from Raushan – are unclear and inconsistent, leaving us to spend too much time wondering where we are and why we’ve come here. There’s no theatrical or dramatic pay-off to justify them. The actors carry us over these holes with their charm and ease, but only just.

A bit of a shame, as this thoughtful, touching story on these cobbled streets comes across as a bit cobbled together, and therefore detracts from a script with great potential and a story with much heart that reminds us that anyone can find love, at any time, and be worthy of it. There are some truly cracking lines and genuinely tender moments that hint at a wonderful and necessary piece that can be excavated from its current state. Certainly the smiles on many of the faces in the opening night audience suggests it has a future, and so this is one to check out with an open mind and an open heart.

[The Cobbled Streets of Geneva] runs through 16 February.

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