Lord Olivier of Paddington: By day it's a west London coffee shop; by night it's tablecloths off for Iranian fringe theatre, courtesy of Iraj Emami, cafe owner, producer, actor extraordinaire

IT IS NOT what you expect of a coffee shop in Paddington, west London. By day, the La Strada looks much like any other cafe; a couple of students spending an hour over a shared espresso, a man in a pinstripe suit loudly conducting business over a portable phone. But for the last three weeks, if you had dropped in during the evening, you would have thought you had been teleported to downtown Tehran.

The chalkboard revealing details of the daily specials had disappeared behind a kelim. Instead of the students, an old man with a white moustache wearing a fez sat at a table drinking tea from a glass. A young man was arguing vehemently with an elderly amputee. You couldn't tell what they were arguing about, unless you spoke Farsi.

At the other end of the cafe, about 20 people, men in business suits, women in Chanel jackets with dyed blond locks frosted by hair-spray, sat in rows watching the action unfold.

This, it transpired, was play-going Iranian-style. The coffee shop had been converted for the evening into an emigre fringe theatre. But it was not any old amateur effort. The man hopping around on crutches with his right leg strapped up behind his back was Iraj Emami, who, one of his audience explained, is known as the 'Laurence Olivier of Iran'.

'No, no, no,' Iraj deferred in Omar Sharif English. 'The Laurence Olivier of Paddington.'

There are as many as 40,000 Iranians living in London, most of them congregated in the borough of Ealing ('because it's a nice place'). According to Iraj, they are not keen theatregoers.

'The Iranian community in Britain doesn't support its culture,' he said. 'I know Iranians. They'll go to the casino and lose pounds 100, but they don't want to know about plays. It's more fun losing money.'

Iraj has produced dozens of shows in Farsi since he came to Britain, hiring fringe theatres and community centre stages. He has lost money on all of them. The play at the La Strada was his first to break even, largely because he didn't have to hire a venue. In fact, he didn't have to pay any rent at all, because he owns the cafe.

The only logistical problem he faced in converting cafe to theatre came when a member of the cast had to lie down on a bed. With no room to swing a pillow, never mind erect a camp-bed, Iraj came up with the ingenious solution of clearing the cooler cabinet and shoving him in there.

'It's not a big part, but I ask why it's so cold in this place,' said Kiani, a research engineer at London University, who played the sleepy character. 'You'd have thought it was obvious.'

Luckily, Kiani did not have to chill out for long. The play was short and to the point. Called Rail, it is set in a station buffet. A young Iranian on his way to Japan to seek work is killing time before his train arrives to take him to the airport. Into the buffet hobbles Iraj, as the scruffy amputee. As they talk, it transpires that the shabby new arrival lost his leg in an industrial accident in Japan. He was working illegally so had no insurance redress. He has come back to Iran destitute and maimed, unable to face his family. The young man plugs him for tips on how to earn a yen or two. The old monoped begs him not to go to Japan, and, when the train arrives, delays him by jumping in front of it.

It was stark, sharp and, even to the non-Farsi-speakers among the audience, poignant. It was also based on a common experience.

Iraj acted in the play 26 years ago, when, in monarchist days, the yellow brick road led to Kuwait. Since the Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution, migrant workers have headed instead for Tokyo. The Japanese foreign ministry calculates that the number of Iranians slipping illegally into the country has nearly trebled since the Gulf war; as many as 45,000 may have entered in 1991.

Despite the foreign currency rewards, working in Japan is not a pleasant option for Iranians. They take rough, dirty work that the Japanese scorn. For six months they do nothing but labour; then, the theory runs, they go back to Tehran and buy a taxi, or, if they can, a cafe. As the play suggests, things often don't work out like that. After the show, the audience were quick to pass on urban legends about desperate fellow countrymen selling their organs once they were in Tokyo.

'Their kidneys they sell. Their eyes, too,' said Iraj's friend Mahmoud, a freelance news cameraman. 'It's true.'

The emigre's lot in Britain is not on this level. None the less, audience and cast alike were touched by the similarities of life in reduced circumstances. Iraj, for instance, was an enormously influential actor in Tehran. He left 16 years ago 'to broaden his experience' in a country less suspicious of actors and intellectuals than theocratic Iran. Pictures of his past performances at Tehran's equivalent of the National Theatre line the walls of La Strada, alongside snapshots of his heroes: Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Marlon Brando and, oddly, Mickey Rourke. Yet here he was, running a coffee shop. He had taken on the cafe four years ago, he explained, as his own version of an Arts Council subsidy.

'I needed to get money so I could do my art for art's sake,' he said. 'But now, with the economic situation, it has become another expensive hobby.'

There are Iranians in London who might have underwritten Iraj's efforts. But they would have expected him to support whatever political cause they espoused. He was not interested in associating with anything that might jeopardise his chances of returning home.

'Iranian society is so fractured here,' Mahmoud explained. 'The monarchists hate the republicans, the leftists hate everybody. Me, I say I am just a journalist.'

AFTER the show, Iraj supervised the conversion of the theatre back into a cafe, and audience and cast sat down to rice fried with cabbage, a herb quiche, tomato and bean salad and lamb's tongue. All the women congregated down one side of the table. Everyone was quick to point out this was a coincidence, there is no segregation in these circles, they said. Everyone drank: wine, beer, vodka.

After supper an impromptu folk group sprang up, much as it might in a Dublin pub. People picked up instruments that appeared to be lying around and played mournful traditional songs, Iraj on a recorder-like instrument, the mouthpiece of which he pushed between his teeth.

IRAJ met most of his cast when he had run classes in method acting at an ILEA adult education institute in Hammersmith. 'It is not there any more,' said Mahmoud. 'Thank you, Mrs Thatcher.'

The actors had a variety of jobs to subsidise their habit. Shaalim Rezavandi, the coffee shop owner in Rail, is a supply teacher in Islington ('I have my picture in Spotlight as an actor, by the way'). Aram, a bouncy, portly 29-year- old ('I see him as the Iranian John Candy,' said Mahmoud) had the smallest part in the play. Like Iraj, he, too, ran a coffee shop.

'It's near the Ealing Studios and the Ealing Drama School,' he explained. 'So I can swap acting gossip. The coffee shop is like a play. Working there, I'm acting all the time. When a builder comes in I say 'Cheers, guv. Here y'are mate'. When the upper-crust come in I'm all 'Yes, Sir, take a seat, Madam'.'

Aram was making extraordinary sacrifices in order to be in Iraj's production. 'I have not seen my son since we began a month ago. I get up at seven, go into the shop, come over here for the evening, I'm not back until 11.30. I told my wife to put pictures of me round the house so that he doesn't forget who I am.'

But he was delighted with the results. 'My wife was well impressed when she came. All I can say about acting is once you go up on stage it's like sex: there's a lot of work beforehand, but the sudden rush of excitement is worth it.'

Alvan, who plays the Japan- bound worker in the play, is on what he calls an 'employment action scheme'. He saw the play as a cure for homesickness.

'My brother is a famous film director in Iran. That's how Iraj knew of me,' he said. 'I miss my country a lot, I feel I am back in it in the play. I used to play in the Iranian football league. There were 16 teams across London. I was playing in midfield. Now I have given up the game. So this is how I go back to Iran in my mind instead.'

Iraj had found six or seven other plays set in coffee shops that he was considering staging following his success.

'I'm writing one myself,' he added. 'It's about the experiences of working as a foreigner in this country. It's a mixture of comedy and drama. Actually it's taking the mickey out of Iranians who have no time for culture.'

In any future productions, Aram hoped he would not be obliged to go through the same rigours that he had in this play for his role as a shabby 60-year-old - plenty of stick-on facial hair and some very well-worn clothes. He had to make his entrance through the cafe's front door from the street. As he was on only for the denouement of the show, he had to wait on the pavement dressed like an old tramp for well over an hour. For about half of his vigil he was joined by Iraj, who, because it was painful, did not strap up his leg to simulate amputation until the last minute.

'Women crossed the road to avoid us,' Aram said. 'One bloke offered me a quid to mind his car. And a woman saw me strapping up Iraj's leg just before he went on. As she came past she started accusing us of being a pair of conmen beggars. Well, I thought, I could make a career out of this if the coffee shop don't do so good.'

(Photograph omitted)

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