Does My Bomb Look Big In This? is a massive play. I mean, it’s not literally – it’s a slim ninety-minute three-hander in the small-ish Soho Upstairs space. But it feels massive. I think it’s because writer Nyla Levy and director Mingyu Lin have stuffed one character’s entire world into the tight black box, slipping neatly between classrooms and bedrooms and WhatsApp groups. The three actors populate this world with dozens of characters: Levy herself mostly plays the central figure of Yasmin, with Halema Hussain as her best friend Aisha and Eleanor Williams as the school bully Morgan, but all three dot between mums and dads, brothers and brother’s mates, police officers and ISIS recruiters to pull us through the story.
There’s so many things that this production gets right in its exploration of teenage radicalisation, but in particular it’s the teenage-ness which is captured so excellently. It’s in Levy’s beautiful and rhythmic south-London schoolkid patter, baked with slang and friendship and uncertainty. It’s in Hussain’s performative maturity as Aisha as she tries to defend and explain her best mate. It’s in the un-blunted nastiness and uninhibited love. And it’s in the injustice of it all, in the indignant, powerless anger at broken systems and structures that I have never felt as strongly as when I was sixteen.
It’s in the phones, and the importance of phones, and the ubiquity of phones, and why does it matter so much to me that this is maybe the only play I’ve ever seen that has staged smartphones without making a big deal out of it? They are written into the narrative and programmed into the production as simply and naturally as they ought to be, and it’s not spectacular, it’s just right. Major credit here to lighting designer Tanya Stephenson, whose eerie blue tinges are all we need to give us a hint of the digital.
At times this massiveness does feel a little crammed, and the dialogue occasionally slips into heavy-handed exposition to keep it all moving along to schedule. The whole story is plated up on a thick base of meta-theatricality which I think I love – but it is definitely the area most prone to this awkwardness. Still, it’s all in service of The Point, and combined with some excellent performances, it is all very forgivable.
The play ends with a monologue from Yasmin’s father, and gah – it’s just totally heart-breaking. For all it’s massiveness, for all the multirolling phone-calling slang-slinging messiness, it all still distils beautifully into this final passage. And I’m just so wowed by Levy’s ability, both as an actor and a writer, to talk structurally and individually at the same time; to pull off a play that is as much about huge social forces as it is about one specific person in one specific place.
So that’s my review of the play. But here’s a little extra bit of stuff it made me think about, which feels relevant to mention, but not really part of the review?
Near the beginning of the play, Yasmin declares to the audience: “we ain’t here to play into your voyeurism” – and it’s an important sentiment that underpins a lot of the meta elements of the play. There’s another point, several scenes later, where “Actor 3” (played by Williams) interrupts the story to bring attention to the fact she’s the only white actor on stage (“I mean – we can all see that”), and that, although this is a discussion that should have been had in the rehearsal room, now that she is performing in front of an audience, she feels uncomfortable that all the white characters she plays are one dimensional filler roles. It’s a blunt and funny inversion of the experiences that drove Levy to write the play, where as a female, mixed-race actor she found herself frequently cast in underwritten, flat “jihadi bride or terrorist’s wife” roles only there to support a male storyline.
Both these moments (and others) hold up a mirror to the audience, an audience which is, at a glance, young, white, and posh (not unlike myself). The third actor might be in the minority on stage, but she’s still part of the clear majority in the room. At times, Does My Bomb Look Big In This? sits uneasily in this white space, with an audience that never quite laughs at the right moments, and maybe never really internalises Levy’s messages.
She writes in the foreword to the playscript:
In 2016, whilst playing a ‘Jihadi Bride’ in a Theatre In Education play, the students interviewed my character, and ended up getting to a point where they understood why the girl I was playing felt she had no other options but to join ISIS. As a result the students let they “learnt to make Muslims in [their] community feel more welcome.”… I wanted to use theatre to explore this and expose the humanity of a typically demonised character.
And there’s no question she’s been successful in this latter part, both in her writing and performance. But it was so easy for me to come out of this play thinking “I haven’t bullied a Muslim teenager recently, so this isn’t really about me.” I wonder if anyone will feel more welcome around the people who have watched this play. I really hope so.
I’m not really sure what the conclusion is here. To the extent that the play is aimed at people who look and sound like me, I’m not sure it manages to pierce the imperviousness of the woke white middle class psychology – and to the extent that it wasn’t, well, they just weren’t there. It’s a brilliant play; it deserves a much more brilliant audience.
Photos by: Bettina Adela