4 stars out of 5
Often hilarious, sometimes moving, this play about how words matter has a cumulative power
Word Play by Rabiah Hussain
Review at a glance
Words matter. That’s the premise of Rabiah Hussain’s snappy exploration of how language is misused, policed, cherished or simply supplanted in today’s London.
There’s no narrative as such: it’s a series of sketches that are often hilarious, sometimes moving and which gain a cumulative thematic power. It’s acted by a diverse five-strong cast with deeply funny bones, on a bare stage with a letterbox window at one end and a mural of rainbow inclusivity at the other.
Some will doubtless consider it too clever for its own good or call it ‘woke’ (thereby demonstrating how easily words are debased). I found it playful, thoughtful, and deliciously up-to-the-minute.
It begins, unpromisingly, in darkness with two voices discussing how phrases resonate down the ages: “Their Finest Hour”, “Rivers of Blood”. Then we’re pitched into the thick of it as Downing Street aides try to try to limit the damage of an offhand remark by the Prime Minister that is offensive to some ethnic and religious groups.
His refusal to say the word “sorry” has them Googling for synonyms and grasping at ways to re-spin his phrase. The PM is unnamed but no prizes for guessing who it is: he needs a new suit and a haircut and quotes randomly from Shakespeare and Churchill.
After a brief diversion into the opposition party gloating, we dive into more varied semantic waters. At a photoshoot a mute model is asked to give physical expression to corporate gobbledegook. On a radio show profanities fly free but opinion is muted by an “impartiality bleeper”. London Underground’s “See It. Say It. Sorted” campaign is given a witty kicking. There’s even an in-joke – smug but very amusing – about what people say when watching a play at the Royal Court.
We spy on couples foundering over insensitivities about race and culture, including one pair in a “completely detached” house in Highgate. Elsewhere a damaged man relates how slurs “hit you like artillery fire”. Chillingly, citizens with linguistic or familial ties to their historic homelands are treated with suspicion.
Interludes where five characters speak aloud the emojis, gif-searches and hashtags they are sending to each other are genuinely funny and remind you that most theatre still pretends mobile phones weren’t invented. Not all the scenes work, particularly those where words are repeated over and over, and the whole thing is necessarily fragmentary.
But Hussain, director Nimmo Ismail and the cast are mostly hugely adroit at providing quick hits of insight and character. The acting is uniformly strong, but I particularly liked Simon Manyonda’s effortless portrayal of a series of awkward nerds, and the conspiratorial ability of Kosar Ali – supporting star of the 2019 indie film Rocks, and still only 19 – to invite you into her performance.
While writing this play, Hussain had an operation on a brain tumour and temporarily lost her feeling for words. I’d say she’s got it back with a vengeance. Apologies for using a cliché: after all, words matter.