Corpus Christi Playroom
Dir: Irim Fazal
4 stars

“Just let yourself go” declares the frustrated husband Adil, as the most celebrated play from Egyptian playwright Tawig al-Hakim draws towards its close, but the quality of this production means that we need no prompting to become immersed in the mix of urbane comedy and Eastern exoticism.

The play opens in the kingdom of cockroaches, and it is a world in which the motions of insects are mimicked in the gyrating, dance-like movements of the performers. The king of these cockroaches (Kamal Hussain) prowls around triumphantly, but all the characters have their unique form of motion. In the play’s most arresting scene, strobe lights flash on to the stage and capture not just the cockroach king but also the queen (Irim Fazal) with her ramrod-straight posture. Through the gymnastic performances of the insect-characters, the production exploits the intimate space of the Corpus playroom.

We are reminded of the play’s roots in the Arab world by frequent interruptions of Arabic, which adds an edge of political satire to the dancing exuberance of the actors. The only slightly clumsy feature comes in the projection of an English translation of the Arabic words spoken by the actors on to the theatre wall. It is a laudable attempt to allow the audience to hear al-Hakim’s original language, but it is almost impossible to follow and distracts you from the insect-characters on stage.

It is Hussain who steals the opening act with his gyrating movements as the king of cockroaches, but as the scene shifts to an urban apartment in 1960s Egypt, Fazal comes into her own. Here we meet a married couple, with Fazal as the sophisticated but frustrated wife Samia, and Hussain (sadly minus his cockroach tail) as Adil, the lovable husband with a few screws loose. Their sharp, witty interplay is just as effective as the dance in filling the cramped theatrical space. The entrance of Paul Kawatte as the Doctor – a delightfully understat ed mixture of Sigmund Freud and a mystic from The Arabian Nights – adds a gentle comedy as he dispassionately examines “the problem of the cockroach”.

Irim Fazal’s production exposes us to an Arab world that is both familiar enough to make us laugh and yet still exotically different. If Cambridge leaves you wanting to be transported to another world, then this is the production for you.

Mike Kielty