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  • Theatre, Drama
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Word-Play, Royal Court Theatre, 2023
Photo: Johan Persson

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

The insidious potential of bland language is explored in Rabiah Hussain’s fascinating new play

Rabiah Hussain’s new play skewers a particularly British kind of bigotry, quietly corrosive as acid rain. A kind that implies things without saying them, gently enforces conformity, and rebrands hatred as plain common sense. ‘Word-Play’ deliberately talks around its points, in a series of sketch-like scenes exploring how language clouds reality. Sometimes, its impact is blurred by the same obfuscation that it’s satirising – sometimes it's blade-sharp.

The play is bookended by scenes set in the world of politics, showing that this country’s tone is set by the people in charge. The scenes are a bit like ‘The Thick of It’, only with the sweary chaos tempered by a deliberate vagueness about what's actually happening. Some kind of gaffe-prone leader (Boris Johnson?) has gone off script with an offensive remark, and his Downing Street aides are scrambling together a strategy. Is there a way of seeming to say ‘sorry’ without actually, you know, apologising? Kosar Ali is hilarious as the keen bean junior staffer who bombards the team with Googled synonyms, each more inappropriate than the last.

Then the story shifts to more intimate scenes in ordinary homes, where moments of prejudice clang like dropped crockery. A Highgate dinner party explodes as a woman begins to find the words to speak about against her patronising husband, who refuses to understand that the UK is becoming an increasingly hostile place for migrants like her family. A man tries to get his girlfriend to spell out what she means when she says he's ‘not like the others.’ Heartbreakingly, a man wishes he'd better prepared his kids for real-world prejudice. But how can anything change when the public sphere silences these voices? At work, a woman poses for her corporate headshot, while being clearly told that her role is a non-speaking one: just mute, sanitised ‘representation.’

Director Nimmo Ismail nails the tone here, while the hardworking five-strong cast wring much humour from these surreal scenarios. Still, specificity is a central ingredient of comedy, making their task here harder: the vagueness and circularity of the language is the point, but sometimes it's nonetheless overwhelming. A final, more naturalistic scene doesn't quite glue this play's disparate parts together. But there's so much about this play that'll stick in your throat: a reminder that words can wound, however bland they might sound. 

Alice Saville
Written by
Alice Saville


£15-£25. Runs 1hr 20min
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