It’s the start of a new school year, and a group of friends take the mick out of each other as they wait for their class to start. They’re also waiting on Fatima. They take bets on when she’ll finally arrive. We don’t see her when she does. We never see her, although we hear plenty about her – because when she comes back to school after the holidays, Fatima has decided, for the first time and without warning, to start wearing the hijab.
What Fatima Did… is the second show I’ve seen at Derby Theatre in the space of a few weeks which is rammed with teenagers and, putting aside the fact that it’s making me feel old, I just want to give some space here to celebrate the absolute bloody triumph of a team who seem to know who they want to get in the door and exactly how to do it. I’ve felt this at every in-house show at Derby Theatre since I moved back last February – whenever I settle into my seat and do a quick scan around, the auditorium always seems to be full of the people who will get the most out of that show, if you judge that by the audible, tangible, laughs-and-gasps engagement throughout the evening. Derby Theatre gets its audiences.
And it’s not afraid of throwing those audiences a challenge. What Fatima Did… seems straightforward on the surface, with each scene putting the seven characters into different constellations as they worry over, argue about, and rub up against Fatima’s decision to wear the hijab. But it’s slippery too, with Atiha Sen Gupta never letting any one member of the group fall into a static opinion, and never letting any one opinion become dominant. It’s a well-worn claim that a play like this provokes discussion, which I’ve no doubt it does in plenty of cars on the way home, but it also leaves the discussion open and unresolved. One consequence of this is one of those slightly awkward, do-we-clap-now endings – but I’ll take that over a final delivery of The Message any day.
There are some stand-out performances amidst others which lack in confidence. Nimisha Odedra stands tall as self-assured, eloquent Aisha; Taja Luegaezor Christian effortlessly delivers deadpan punchlines, bringing one scene to a complete halt as the audience goes to pieces; and Matthew Biddulph finds a razor-thin line between entitlement and softness as Fatima’s jilted boyfriend. And again, it’s a mark of how placed and balanced the text feels that no one character ever threatens to become the outright protagonist. Everyone gets to say their piece, and we get to decide how we feel about it.
One of my favourite things about What Fatima Did… is how it deals with perspective. It defines and redefines the offstage and unseen Fatima, leaving her open for us to project our own ideas and baggage onto, then asking us whether we think that projection shows the full picture. It gives us a cast of young characters who are learning, through trial and error, that there’s something more valuable than having the right answer, and a lot of things that are worse than being wrong. That the world doesn’t need any more people who are determined to stick to their own point of view, but it really needs more people who can listen, be flexible, and change their minds.
I’m currently a bit broken-record on this idea of what YA theatre looks like,
mostly partly because I’m trying to write it myself, partly because I feel like I’ve only just noticed how rare it actually is. There are a lot of plays that pitch themselves to a teenage audience by virtue of being an adaptation of a Young Adult book, or by just being an adaptation of any book that’s on the curriculum. The thing that most excites me about What Fatima Did… is that it’s neither. This story feels wholeheartedly, from conception, for and about young people and for the theatre. The central conceit of an unseen title character is such a deliberate choice that really works for theatre, and it’s only one way in which stories about teenagers can have a totally new and different life if we write them for stage. What Fatima Did… shows up that constantly re-doing adaptations that are really only aimed at young people (and more often aimed at schools and parents) just feels tired and unambitious, and like it’s not good enough anymore.
What Fatima Did…
Writer: Atiha Sen Gupta
Director: Sarah Brigham
Producer & Assistant Director: Rafia Hussain
Set and Costume Designer: Charlotte Henery
Lighting Designer: Ele Munn
Sound Designer: James Bennett
Performed by: Adeel Ali, Matthew Biddulph, Terry Haywood, Alex Kapila, Taja Luegaezor Christian, Rebecca McQuillan, and Nimisha Odedra