THEATRE / All batting for Blighty: Paul Taylor on the National's tour of Wicked, Yaar]

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The Independent Culture
May all your days be spent on soft cushions, attended by eunuchs,' proclaims the unscheduled visitor in Garry Lyons' Wicked, Yaar]. It's a nice thought, but not a terribly practical one to wish for someone living in contemporary Bradford. Or rather it wouldn't be, if this interloper didn't possess the power to make it come true. But then again, the offer of a soaring, custom-built palace of jasper in which the meaning of life would be made manifest might seem just a fraction out of scale to a recently widowed Pakistani lady, who stands to lose the family shop because of death-duties, and to her son, an outstanding school cricketer who keeps being beaten up by the local white yobs. For someone with an innate sense of fair play, having an accidentally- summoned Ghul (a form of jinnee) on his side could well be a mixed blessing.

Exploring the comic and the darker consequences of this situation, John Turner's attractive, warm-spirited National Theatre production shifts around a range of styles: from thumping rap narration and humorous rhymed dialogue that, relayed in a Northern accent, sounds like a hip hommage a Tony Harrison to pounding bhangramuffin, the fusion of Indian melody and Western beat that thunders out in the disco scene as backing to a joyous formation dance by the young company. Not so much Bee Gees as bhajis 'n' ketchup.

Clad in a loud check suit and curly-toed Arabian Nights slippers, Bhasker is delightfully impish as the Ghul who comes to admire the modest restraint of Ravi Aujla's winningly decent and down-to-earth Malik, the cricketing whizzkid. Without ever wearing too solemn an expression, the play takes pains to complicate its various moral equations.

At the match watched by County selectors, the captain of the opposing team is a white female who is herself no stranger to discrimination. Flashbacks to the spirit underworld, which is presided over by the great golden-winged Rock Bird, reveal that the Ghul is also part of an oppressed forge-working minority in a power structure that is a distorted reflection of the one on Earth.

The spirit's sojourn here is a penance for day-dreaming and insubordination, and permission to return to his wife and children depends upon his total obedience to whichever human has charge of a magic medallion. When this falls into the hands of the most fanatical of the racist yobs, it provokes a climactic crisis of conscience and conflicts of loyalty. It says a lot for the drama that Lyons has his spirit learn wisdom the hard way through initial failure and fallibility. Only then is it brought home to him, in a lesson that has obvious applications to the human situation, that these creatures may be part of a tribe but are free to think for themselves.

On tour both before and after its period in the Cottesloe in March, this production celebrates the richness of cross-cultural fusion without making plaster saints of its Pakistani characters (for example, both Malik and his mother dart behind the phrase, 'No talk Blighty' when the taxwoman calls). And it shows that, to an upstanding batsman, recourse to a jinnee just isn't cricket.

At Watermans Arts Centre, Brentford (081-568 1176). Then on tour, incl 8-19 March at the Cottesloe, National Theatre (071-928 2252)

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