The Infidel, Theatre Royal Stratford East: David Baddiel's musical has a heart of gold

This jazz-hands plea for religious tolerance feels timely

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Stage musicals of films can seem like cynical beasts, but David Baddiel and Erran Baron Cohen’s version of their own 2010 cult film The Infidel bucks the trend: it got off the ground thanks to Kickstarter crowd-funding, and is a feel-good cracker. You’d have to be cynical yourself to leave with anything less than a big grin.

Which given it tackles Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, at a time when religious tolerance within Britain (and beyond) seems more imperilled than ever, makes it important as well as just daftly enjoyable. It’s not, of course, the first musical to mock fundamentalism or affectionately send up religious stereotypes (see Jerry Springer the Opera, The Book of Mormon), but its plea for understanding, delivered with jazz hands and a wink, certainly feels timely.

It has a rock-solid plot to hang the song and dance numbers on: Mahmoud is a normal British Muslim cabbie who discovers he was adopted at birth and is actually a Jew. To meet his dying father, he must prove his Jewishness to a closed-shop Rabbi – cue lots of lessons in ‘oy vey’-ing. At the same time, he must also prove he’s a “proper” Muslim to a visiting hate preacher to secure his seal of approval on their children’s engagement. Hilarity ensues? Well, sometimes.

The Infidel takes a while to get going – some stage business, attempting to make a virtue of an obvious low-budget, is not as funny as it thinks – and at two hours 45 minutes, it’s far too long. This is especially problematic given Baron Cohen’s songs don’t really deliver any memorable tunes (‘Put a Fatwah On It’ being the exception, I can confirm, having listened to my partner singing “put a fatty-fatty-fatty-fatwah on it” all the way home).

The humour comes from cheap stereotypes, but that’s kinda the point: Baddiel makes sure there’s a knowing self-mockery to proceedings. He has an equal-opportunity approach to piss-taking: just when you think he’s going soft on Islam, or Judaism, along comes a song about sexy burkas, or circumcision. But there’s little that’s really envelope-pushing; after decades of South Park, satiric swipes at religion hardly feel new.

Kev Orkian leads the cast as Mahmoud, and has a teddy-bearish likability that carries this flawed everyman role. There’s a pantomimic quality to many performances – especially Alexander Andreou’s big-bearded hate preacher. That works; others could do with dialling it down, although there’s no denying the cast of nine are hard-working multi-taskers. As a side note: it was a cheering week for diversity in British theatre, with two more big hit openings – Here Lies Love, East is East – with casts not predominantly white (still a depressingly rare thing).

While it would be easy to eye-roll at The Infidel’s love-shall-overcome finale, in a world where hate crime is rising, and the mainstream portrayal of an entire religion is one of vicious extremists, it is good and right to show a moderate ‘normal’ Muslims, to laugh at fundamentalism, to find shared humanity… The Infidel may not all be golden, but it certainly has a heart of gold.

To 2 Nov;