Review: Khadija is 18, Finborough Theatre

The Finborough Theatre, under the direction of Neil McPherson, has produced and presented high-quality plays of all shapes and sizes. But in Khadija is 18, by newcomer Shamser Sinha, something feels amiss. Whilst it’s dangerous to try and reduce a theatre’s work to a certain style of performance, Khadija is 18 just doesn’t feel like a Finborough production, and Tim Stark’s direction doesn’t seem to have had the Finborough’s intimate staging in mind. Although the play explores some worthy causes – immigration, asylum seekers, cultural differences and young love – this is not enough to stop Khadija is 18 feeling disparate and lost.

The piece centres on Khadija (Aysha Kala), who lives in a hostel with fellow asylum-seeker Liza (Katherine Rose Morley) after leaving her home country of Afghanistan. They attend a college to improve their English, with the hope of finding a place in London. Also attending the college are young and foolhardy Black British Ade (Victor Alli) and Sam (Damson Idris). Khadija is 18 comes from the perspective of young people desperate to be who they are in a country they want to be part of. We see that ultimately, this cannot happen through government systems – regardless of how good their English is or who they fall into bed with, they’ll always be outsiders.

Fly Davis’s design sees the play set against a backdrop of graffiti and concrete, which feel impenetrable and uncomfortable. Stark’s direction makes use of blocks that are moved about, but often this feels more of a hindrance than a practical method for exploring space and time. The play, lasting some 80 minutes, could easily be trimmed – for a start, by cutting down the elaborate scene changes. These are executed by the cast, still in character, and their knowing smirks and scornful looks to each other distract from the narrative. The cast also seem set on shouting or screaming their lines for the best part of the performance. In the intimate auditorium of the Finborough Theatre, you can’t help but feel as if Stark’s aim is out to knock certain messages into the audience, rather than subtlely explore the themes of the play.

The cast feel rather flat or over rehearsed, their characters’ journeys so clearly mapped out from the onset that we feel somewhat indifferent to them. There is merit in Kala’s bold portrayal of Khadija, reeling off Sinha’s dialogue effortlessly but maintaining a certain commitment. In the characters of Sam and Ade, it feels that Idris and Alli are always playing the text for laughs, which is a shame. Whilst there is something pleasing about the way the characters bounce off each other, we long for the subtle and calmer moments in their fiery relationship. We know there is much more depth to be found beneath Sinha’s text, but Stark’s direction plays it too close to the surface.

Khadija is 18 is in desperate need of some balance and refinement. Whilst it is a gallant first professional debut for Sinha as a playwright, the narrative feels too thin at times, and the characters journeys are too predictable. These can be excused – what can’t, though, is a lack of understanding of how a space such as the Finborough Theatre should be used. Shouting actors and poor direction mean this play just doesn’t feel right for its venue.

Originally published on A Younger Theatre.