Ready or Not, The Arcola, London, theatre review: Ambitious black comedy thrives in the dark, but struggles to lighten a sombre story of torture

Helena Bell directs a solid three hander black comedy which is at its best when observing modern day anti-Muslim sentiments.

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The Independent Culture

A shell pink carpet, a rolling single table made to slot around the elderly person living alone, and flowers piled up like the site of an accident black spot. All this and a young man in Muslim dress, tied to a chair centre stage greet the audience in Studio 2 of the Arcola.

Naylah Ahmed’s Ready or Not, directed by Helena Bell, includes kidnap, torture, grief and memory, but the real heart of this is the acceptability of anti-Islam sentiment among people who otherwise consider themselves decent.

Pat, played as steely nerves coming undone by a superb Joan Blackham, is a retired primary school teacher who has taken Yusuf (Adam Karim) hostage in her living room, after he arrived at her door with a petition about drone strikes.

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Suburban war on terror. Joan Blackham (left) and Adam Karim (right)

Interspersed in the high-minded debate between Pat and Yusuf about terrorism and security, drones and soldiers, religiosity and atheism, are odd lapses into slapstick. Despite being a “black comedy” the humorous elements aren’t funny enough to not make them jarring. A tone that is at its most sinister for its familiarity is broken by these moments.

Amateur violence used to justify mechanised violence, and the upsetting euphemism of “collateral” damage for an interesting discussion, but the debate feels unrealistic and stilted compared with the real and cutting observations of growing up Muslim in a country unhappy to see you. It’s in this section, the play’s strongest, that Yusuf remarks “Imagine learning not to make a fuss at such a young age” as he relates the indignity of having your “unpronounceable” name changed for you in what is supposed to be the innocent environment of a classroom.

The constant beeping and buzzing of Pat’s phone and tablet notifications are her own constant torture, and her addiction to screens and forums about IEDs are contrasted to Yusuf’s love of human interactions. To his misfortune, Yusuf knocked on Pat’s door because he prefers to canvass for a petition in person, rather than through a click warrior website.

The second act becomes more of a caper, as a grieving mother and daughter in law Holly (Natasha Rickman) fight over one man’s memory. Letters read in voice over reveal the unseen soldier’s own memories were haunting him as his words now haunt Pat, and possibly drove her to her own crimes against Yusuf.

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Natasha Rickman as Holly, intruding on Pat's makeshift torture chamber

The violence is quite gripping for its plausibility. Household items are transformed into the torture tools of Abu Ghraib: a washing up bowl, a woman’s scarf, oxtail soup and a sturdy English cricket bat. At one horrid moment Yusuf’s dignity is again dealt a blow as he is forced to use the toilet in a bucket in front of Pat.

An overused voiceover of an unseen character distracts from a drama that is strongest at its most realistic, and often leaves actors to wait for it to finish interrupting them. While illuminating for the drama, the exposition feels extraneous at times.

Ready or Not is an ambitious black comedy which thrives in its darker moments, but struggles to lighten the tone of a sombre and at times lecturing story of grief and the latent fear of otherness.

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