As Barack Obama fights for a second term in the White House, Rashid Razaq, a reporter on the Evening Standard, weighs in with this intriguing and accomplished two-hander that speculates about a pivotal moment in the future President's youth.
It's set in the early 1980s and Barry Obama – here a leather-jacketed, turtle-necked Columbia graduate, compellingly played by Syrus Lowe– is about to leave the scuzzy apartment in crime-ridden Harlem that he has been sharing with Sal Maqbool, a young Pakistani illegal immigrant.
In Tom Attenborough's fluent, well-focused production, the pair are surrounded by cardboard boxes which, as a motif of transition, even form the ceiling of Francesca Reidy's wry, telling design. Sal imagines that they are going to hump these packing cases to their new pad. But over the course of a single, bumpy night, he has to come to terms with the fact that Barry is leaving his party-loving past and the hedonism of “toxic” New York behind for the job as a community organiser in Chicago that was to set him off on the path to political glory.
The real-life Sohale Siddiqi was evoked in a few pages of Obama's memoir Dreams of My Father as the composite character Sadik. The dramatist uses artistic licence here to create yet another version. Splendidly captured in Junaid Faiz's funny yet wrenching performance, Razaq's Sal is a clingy, gabbling cokehead and fantasist – a self-destructive, self-deluded figure whose defences are broken down as his lies about a missing dog and a messy drug-deal are gradually exposed.
Stylised flashbacks to Obama bopping in a disco to hip-hop abruptly sketch in the life that he is forsaking and the two actors, well-served by the often very amusing script, have the kind of quick-fire Odd Couple rapport that can build between co-habitants thrown together by circumstance.
As the play progresses, you can perhaps hear the President-to-be too heavily signalled in this twenty-something. But Lowe does a beautiful job of showing you a man torn between compassion for his needy chum and a steely-eyed realisation that Sal is the kind of baggage that he will have to jettison if he is to further his career and wield political power on behalf of the needy in general. The progression is classic (think of Hal turning into Henry V) but Razaq plays a deft and thought-provoking variation on it in this promising debut.
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