Zia Ahmed is a poetry slam champion and a London laureate, but rather than feeling heightened or high-blown, his debut play (co-produced with Paines Plough and Tamasha) has a natural, easy rhythm. The focus stays small – on a single couple, Ella and Haseeb – but the combination of Ahmed’s funny, delicate writing and two utterly lovely performances from Emily Stott and Ragevan Vasan makes this a little gem of a show.
It refracts light, inviting you to see a relationship, and contemporary London, from two ever-turning perspectives. Stott and Vasan are joined on stage by Rachael Merry, an actor and BSL interpreter who signs swiftly and reactively around them.
Haseeb has Pakistani heritage; Ella grew up in Yorkshire. Haseeb lives in north London, Ella in south. The way they tease each other, after meeting at a performance workshop (she’s an actor, he’s a poet; both are in their twenties), you’d think the main hurdle they face is having to cross the river and navigate south London’s shit buses. But the cultural divide – and, more importantly, the cultural assumptions and mistakes they and others around them make – are slowly revealed to be larger challenges than they ever expected.
Ahmed painfully captures the micro-aggressions and unconscious prejudices Haseeb faces endlessly, whether it’s Ella’s mother asking him ‘what are you doing to address the problems in your community?’ over a curry, or how people always try to buy drugs off him when Ella takes him to a party. There are moments that will likely make white audiences squirm a little, but Vasan is such a gentle, appealing performer, it rarely feels like tough medicine to swallow.
Ahmed has a very light touch, and ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ is consistently enjoyable to watch, directed with sensitivity but also fizz by Anna Himali Howard. The relationship whips by in short, revealing vignettes, soundtracked by squalls and flurries of strings, and the characters flick between intimate dialogue and asides to the audience describing or commenting on the scene. This approach could feel lumpy or forced, but here it works effortlessly, Vasan and Stott drawing us in with wry irony and glimpses of vulnerability.
Merry’s signing becomes a smart visual equivalent of these asides: she often embodies what they describe, acting out the snapping of a poppadum or miming a first snog with her hands. There were moments I wished there were two signing actors, who could circle each other as Stott and Vasan do, but Merry is always a vivacious, vivid part of the storytelling.
It’s also true that the production is blessed with a truckload of that unpredictable but essential ingredient: chemistry. You watch Vasan and Stott looking at each other and think they must genuinely be infatuated. Ahmed’s writing is a little repetitive in bickering fights, but really captures the teasing and in-jokes of a new couple, and the actors make all this feel springy, tender, and convincing. A touching debut, beautifully delivered.