This Clean Break and Bush co-production starts with teenage Leila, living with her grandmother, anxiously awaiting the return of mother Aleena from a spell in prison; Leila, in a performance of remarkable pathos and insight from Ashna Rabheru, then becomes the central chess piece in a power struggle between the two older women as recriminations fly and family secrets bubble to the surface.
it’s Ashna Rabheru, playing Aleena’s intelligent but vulnerable teenage daughter, Leila, who stands out most of all. Just as she did in The Animal Kingdom, the family therapy drama at Hampstead Theatre, Rabheru takes us inside the mind of a girl who is articulate but never quite sure of her place in the world.
3 stars out of 5
Bush theatre, London
Three generations of a working-class Muslim family clash in Ambreen Razia’s meditation on the complexities of motherhood
Convincingly charismatic … (from left) Renu Brindle, Ashna Rabheru and Avita Jay in Favour at Bush theatre, London. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian
Thu 30 Jun 2022 22.00 BST
This lean multi-generational family drama explores ways of mothering, and the emotional punch, when it comes, is well worth the wait even if there are a few bumps along the way.
Three generations of British Asian women make up the working-class family in Ambreen Razia’s play: a prodigal daughter, of sorts, in Aleena (Avita Jay), who returns home after a two-year stint behind bars to her doting daughter, Leila (Ashna Rabheru), and a quietly judgmental mother, Noor (Renu Brindle).
A Clean Break co-production, its tender dissection of motherhood intersects with class, immigrant life, addiction and faith, alongside the emotional effects of incarceration. Aleena was an alcoholic before prison life turned her into a clean-living yogi, or so she claims. Noor has been raising her granddaughter, Leila, as a practising Muslim but Aleena discourages her daughter from wearing a hijab, and from Islam as a whole. This is one ongoing battle played out between the older mother and daughter but other animosities swim under the surface, perhaps unspoken for a little too long.
Co-directed by Róisín McBrinn and Sophie Dillon Moniram, it has a slow-burn start, sometimes seeming too much like a kitchen-sink drama (there is, in fact, a kitchen sink on stage as part of Liz Whitbread’s set).
Ashna Rabheru and Avita Jay in Favour at Bush theatre, London. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian
There are also a few sudden shifts in tone, including a scene in which the living room turns into a beauty salon and Aleena magically tends to Leila’s every wish. Maybe it is a fantasy or a flash of magical realism – it is never explained. The character of Fozia (Rina Fatania), an interfering old friend of the family, seems like a flat comic cliche invading this sensitive and serious drama.
But the most powerful material rises above these elements as the play progresses and builds to a potent end. Razia’s script does a fine job of establishing the complicated layers in the relationships between mothers, daughters and grandmothers.
The cast give strong performances too: Rabheru brings anxious innocence to her teenage daughter caught between two clashing mother figures, while Jay makes for a convincingly charismatic yet fragile mother (with a surprisingly strong singing voice) and Brindle is an equal force against her daughter’s flightiness.
The lies, subterfuge and betrayals between them are withheld for quite some time and lead to confusion at points, but the script makes up for this in its masterful characterisations. Aleena is both a devoted mother and unreliable addict. Noor is a controlling grandmother and a protector. No one is simply right or wrong, victim or aggressor; they are both flawed but their pained love is clear, and incredibly moving, to see.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Avita Jay and Renu Brindle in Favour
© Suzi Corker
Female kinship and the ties that bind take quite a battering in Ambreen Razia’s engaging but uneven family drama. This Clean Break and Bush co-production starts with teenage Leila, living with her grandmother, anxiously awaiting the return of mother Aleena from a spell in prison; Leila, in a performance of remarkable pathos and insight from Ashna Rabheru, then becomes the central chess piece in a power struggle between the two older women as recriminations fly and family secrets bubble to the surface. Plays about contemporary Pakistani families in present day London are not exactly common, so this has an added layer of freshness and vitality, especially when performed as superbly as it is here.
Most of Razia’s dialogue is funny, pithy and plausible, although some of the heartfelt lengthier speeches feel a little contrived. Her characters burst into life with all too human flaws and characteristics: prim grandmother Noor, beautifully played by Renu Brindle, is a secret smoker, Leila is dogged by crippling anxiety, and her mother Aleena is a mass of contradictions, espousing the efficacy of yoga one moment and trying to get off her face the next.
Rósín McBrinn and Sophie Dillon Moniram’s staging gives full rein and weight to the tragicomic possibilities in Razia’s script, but struggles to make the more unexpected elements gel (there is a wish-fulfilment fantasy sequence between Aleena and Leila that doesn’t fully work, and a farcically bizarre egg-lobbing fight section that strains credulity). Nor does the direction solve the problem that arguably the most enjoyable character (family friend and severely judgemental pillar of the community Fozia: Rina Fatania in fine, hilarious scenery-chewing form) appears to have wandered in from a completely different play.
Avita Jay gives newly released young mum Aleena a slightly manic, hard edge that entirely chimes with a woman thrilled at gaining her freedom and seeing her beloved daughter, while nursing a low level fury at the unfairness that led her to prison in the first place. Jay, Brindle and Rabheru beautifully evoke the unspoken bonds that draw this central trio together, their love for each other is never in doubt, and neither is a deep well of resentment. The contrast between the women – Rabheru’s subtly nervous watchfulness as Leila versus the compelling human tornado of Jay’s dynamic Aleena and Brindle’s uneasy authority as the doting grandmother – is fascinating, and feels like the true heart of the play.
Liz Whitbread’s set has a wonderfully lived-in feel to it, and the sense of a community that supports but sometimes oppresses and nearly always judges stretching beyond the family photo-bedecked walls, is very powerful.
Razia’s text falters in it’s unconvincing final scene where we learn why Aleena was sent to prison, and in a hastily contrived conclusion that ends the play on an optimistic, but not necessarily persuasive, note. Despite these reservations, Favour is a consistently engaging watch, and there is real dramatic meat in some of the heated exchanges. If you like your drama with a lot of heart and humour, you’ll certainly find that here, along with a quartet of terrific performances.
“Depressingly believable story about abuse”
REVIEWSJUL 1, 2022BUSH THEATRE, LONDON
Avita Jay and Ashna Rabheru in Favour at Bush Theatre, London. Photo: Suzi Corker
Thoughtful set design lifts a heavy story of familial abuse
Infused with the aroma of a Jacqueline Wilson novel, Favour is a kitchen-sink drama featuring running water and piles of washing up. The Bush and Clean Break theatre company – which specialises in telling stories of women in the criminal justice system – create a prison-like home to which a woman returns after two years in jail. Old wounds resurface and the uncomfortable question arises: can she look after her 16-year-old daughter?
Leila, the daughter, is played with wide eyes and giggly, fearful innocence by Ashna Rabheru. We see her being manipulated and physically abused by her mother, Aleena. The latter, played by Avita Jay, never sits still, cartwheeling and doing yoga around the sofa. She hates the gap between the furniture and wall but won’t take her OCD pills because they make her sleepy. A gossipy, passive-aggressive neighbour evokes shrieks of laughter from the audience. The performances are vocally strong but overly frantic.
The detail lies in the lighting, props and set design – a small medicine bottle balances on top of loose papers below the coffee table. During a scene change, upbeat music plays and the gap between the wall and the dining table is lit up in pink, a colourful nod towards Aleena’s OCD in a house that was previously calm and orderly. A tube of soft yellow light encircles the stage and keeps the action contained within, lighting the furniture and knickknacks. Leila’s grandma, the devoutly Muslim Noor, spends her time scrubbing pots in a kitchen sunk down into the stage, featuring a fridge we can see inside. The design is nuanced and pointedly agoraphobic.
Arabic calligraphy lies on the wall above a sofa and dining table where the physically distant family never sits down together. The beige decor is matched by Noor’s neat dress and contrasted by Aleena’s bright but tatty t-shirt and leggings. Renu Brindle’s controlled facial expressions and physical stillness betray emotions that bubble under Noor’s surface – she is reserved, held-in like her house. Her coldness is well-acted and believable, which makes it distressing to watch. Unconditional love is non-existent here.
Favour is like a soap opera, full of big themes. But it doesn’t develop the smaller storylines. Leila paints a future home for her grandma and mum but we don’t find out if she paints herself in. PTSD is mentioned in passing, as well as a time in the past when Aleena chose alcohol over food for her daughter, but we don’t hear more about those topics. It is a depressingly believable story about abuse. But it could be told with a little more nuance.
Bush Theatre, W12
Thursday June 30 2022, 12.00pm, The Times
Ashna Rabheru playing Leila and Avita Jay playing Aleena in Favour
A “welcome home” banner is displayed on the wall of an unassuming house in Ilford, but it’s clear that this is going to be anything but an easy return to the fold. Ambreen Razia’s thoughtful if claustrophobic play follows the journey of Aleena, a single mother who is back in her widowed mother’s house in east London after having served time in prison.
In its way this co-production with Clean Break, a company that specialises in work depicting women behind bars, offers a dour image of the life of a former convict. But the piece is illuminated by exceptionally sensitive performances from a cast of four. And it’s Ashna Rabheru, playing Aleena’s intelligent but vulnerable teenage daughter, Leila, who stands out most of all. Just as she did in The Animal Kingdom, the family therapy drama at Hampstead Theatre, Rabheru takes us inside the mind of a girl who is articulate but never quite sure of her place in the world.
Who should be her role model? For some time now her pious Pakistani grandmother Noor (the assured Renu Brindle) has been guiding her through school and trying to deal with her psychological frailties (like her mother, Leila exhibits traces of obsessive compulsive disorder). But when the thoroughly westernised Aleena returns after her spell inside, the talk is suddenly all of make-up and manicures and Love Island. The effect on Leila is predictably destabilising.
Avita Jay gives us a mother who readily drops the F-word and is always on the edge. For all her talk of finding enlightenment in prison — she seldom misses an opportunity to shake up her chakras with a yoga pose — she quickly falls into old bad habits. Music has become an alternative form of worship for her: within minutes of arriving home she is channelling Chaka Khan. Meanwhile, the visits of Noor’s interfering, status-conscious friend Fozia — played with brio by Rina Fatania — add to the young woman’s insecurities. An explosion, you sense, will not be long in coming.
Razia, whose earlier work includes the drama The Diary of a Hounslow Girl, adds a convoluted plot twist towards the end: we discover that, if Aleena is a less than perfect mother, Noor (who puffs on a cigarette in the opening scene) has her guilty secrets too. Róisín McBrinn and Sophie Dillon Moniram direct with a light touch nonetheless, and Liz Whitbread’s scuffed but homely domestic interior — with a sunken kitchen — becomes almost a character in its own right.
To August 6, bushtheatre.co.uk
by Alexander Cohen Jul. 1, 2022
Ambreen Razia’s new play paints a searing portrait of a polarised family stratified across three generations of Muslim women. It is a heartfelt meditation on the meaning of duty, community, and faith with an outstanding cast delivering dynamite performances.
Aleena returns from two years in prison to her adolescent daughter Lelia and mother Noor. Noor has imposed a regimented lifestyle informed by Islam on Lelia. Inevitable clashes ensue, each more pernicious than the last. Lelia is at a crossroads; she must choose between her mother Aleena’s freewheeling optimism, a life of manicures and materialism, and the woman who adopted the role of mother, her grandmother’s adherence to religious obedience.
Unfolding in a single living room in a dingy yet finely detailed flat in Illford, wider themes naturally stem from this central tension like branches from a tree. Favour has the ambition and emotional yearning of a Greek tragedy yet remains firmly planted in humanity and the lived experience of its characters.
All trees need fertile soil to grow, and Favour‘s iridescent cast are its soil, allowing the writing to flourish. Avita Jay‘s thunderous performance as Aleena undulates to a scorching climax. When she explodes, she fills the theatre with terrible beauty, desperately weaponising love for her emotionally feeble daughter. But she is also incredibly vulnerable, something that she masks disconcertingly behind hollow optimism.
A fantasy sequence sees the flat transform into a beauty salon; the flat’s dull brown wallpaper is bathed in electric pink light. Aleena promises to spoil her daughter with all the material goodies she desires. But this is not a celebration of motherhood, it is a slow unpeeling of Aleena’s identity revealing the extent of her abject desperation for her daughter’s recognition.
Above all else Aleena is a victim caught in a cycle of paranoia induced by the ever-present community, struggling to integrate back into a world where duty and honour are tantamount. Favour is a co-production with Clean Break, a theatre company which specialises in exploring relationships between women and the criminal justice system.
The Muslim community that loiters in the background has a concrete presence throughout. Its demands and expectations shape the three generations of women’s lives. Razia’s understanding of the nature of community is nuanced and multicoloured. It can be both a claustrophobic imposition, and a comforting shoulder to lean on for those in need, like Renu Brindle’s authoritative yet understated Noor. This protean nature manifests in Rina Fatania‘s flamboyant Fozia, a self-righteous gossip who likes to stir the pot whilst also displaying charitable affection.
The community also promises structure for Ashna Rabheru‘s anxious Leila, whose beautiful naivety is quiet yet subtly poignant. Rabheru has a striking ability to evoke a fifteen-year-old girl’s energy, mannerisms, and innocence. At the beginning she bounces around the stage with childlike glee, fuelled by the excitement of her mother’s homecoming. By the end she is composed, finding her voice to stand up to both women vying to control.
By the curtain call the cast appear exhausted. The play is very much a psychological workout for them, but also for its audience. Razia demands reflection on their own experience with family and community. The first sentence of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina never felt so appropriate: “All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”