THEATRE Paper Husband Hampstead Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture
Hanan Al-Shaykh is a Lebanese-born writer who has lived for the past seven years in London. Though three of her novels have been translated into English and a sketch performed at Hampstead Theatre, Paper Husband, her first full-length drama, represents a significant shift in her relationship with an audience.

The novels (which take a critical look at the low status of Lebanese women) ran the risk, through censorship, of never reaching their distant Arab public. Now this play, about a young Moroccan woman desperate to get permanent residence in London, faces its audience directly across the footlights. With comically determined confidentiality, Amina (Sasha Behar) berates us Englishmen out front for not giving her a first glance, let alone the eye, as she goes about London and her temporary job as a hotel chambermaid.

Given the striking beauty of Ms Behar, this blanket inattention from the Brits (apart, we learn, from the odd beggar) takes a bit of believing, as do other aspects of a play which, in Gemma Bodinetz's production, generates a fair amount of goodwill, some haphazard hilarity but insufficient focused energy. The most vivid (and in every sense of the term) broadest character is Veronica Clifford's Raja, a kind of Moroccan Dolly Levi, who can offer any service from supplying you with an amulet to ward off the evil eye to corpse-washing to selling you a husband for pounds 3,000.

Slipping hard-nosed monetary reminders into her well-practised gooey spiel of motherly solicitousness, Raja is not given to understatement ("I would not piss on your wounded fingers") whenever Amina rejects a prospective spouse. But there's something winning about the incorrigible venality of this mountainous little woman, the colour scheme of whose wannabe chic outfits would stand her in excellent stead, safety-wise, if she were ever to take up biking in the dark.

Independently of this schemer, Amina meets Gabriel (Rupert Penry-Jones), a dishy art-school graduate temping as a cleaner in the hotel. Turned on when she performs a North African dance (normally associated with exorcising devils) for him in her digs, he parts her from her virginity. The couple's different cultural expectations of what this will mean for the future - his casual Western "Look, we've had a nice time together, don't spoil it" up against her panicky reckoning that a non-virgin is a non-starter in the Muslim marriage market, or worse - would lead the play into more interesting dramatic territory, if the characterisation of both Amina and Gabriel did not seem so prefabricated for just that purpose.

Equipped with miraculously fluent spoken English, an improbably unstraitened lifestyle given her chambermaid's pay, and a predominantly materialist motive for coming to London in the first place, Amina leaves you feeling guilty that she never properly engages your sympathies. For all the communication she makes with the other girls at the hotel, they might as well be scene- shifting zombies (sad, because that would have been a fruitful source of cultural contrasts). And you lose confidence in the play because of the number of false notes struck. For example, for the sexy dance scene, it's necessary that Amina have big powerful speakers in her flat. It appears that she came by just such a pair when her neighbours left them out for the bin men and they refused to take them...

To 22 Feb (0171-722 9301)

Paul Taylor