A great deal of wishful thinking has gone into the making of Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Qur'an, a two-hander by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt that charts the deepening bond between an elderly Sufi grocer and a 13-year-old Jewish boy in 1960s Paris.
The director Peter Brook recently remarked that instead of intervening polemically in the post-September 11 debate, it might be better for theatre to direct its energies into giving us "glimpses of what our lives have lost, a fleeting taste of qualities long forgotten". Monsieur Ibrahim comes across as a well-intentioned travesty of that approach.
Its two characters manage to surmount the barriers of age, race and religion in a tale that is charming and touching - as well as beautifully acted in Patricia Benecke's lovely, spare production - but self-sabotagingly simplistic. Abandoned by his mother shortly after he was born, Moses (Ryan Sampson) lives in a gloomy, book-filled flat with his depressive lawyer-father.
When wrongly accused of stealing money by his father, he decides that he may as well live down to his unjust reputation and starts filching cash to fund his precocious trips to prostitutes. Keeping the theft hidden involves shoplifting food daily from the store run by Monsieur Ibrahim (Nadim Sawalha), and to conquer his shame he focuses on the fact that Ibrahim is an Arab.
But Ibrahim, wise to this dodge, is amused and forgiving. Pointing out that he's not an Arab but a Muslim from the Golden Crescent, he offers the boy the paternal guidance and affection he lacks. When his real father commits suicide, Moses becomes Ibrahim's adoptive son.
Sawalha brings a droll humanity to the role of the old Sufi, and Ryan Sampson, who, as Moses, tells the story, is immensely engaging. But they can't distract you from the glib way the play glides over the realistic obstacles to this alliance; or from the drama's diagrammatic neatness (it's left to the Muslim to explain to Moses that his father suffered from Holocaust-survivor guilt); or from the curiously weightless feel to proceedings as Ibrahim drives the boy to his native Anatolia and the whirling dervishes who help him to shed his anger.
Moses' sentimental education is also sentimental, in the less fortunate sense of the word.
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