Review of Habibti Driver at Bolton Octagon.
It’s fitting that Shamia Chalabi and Sarah Henley include an Arabic term of endearment in the title of their new play, because love and affection are the bedrocks of comedy drama Habibti Driver.
Taxi driver Ashraf often refers to daughter Shazia as his ‘habibti’, although their relationship is a testy one. Based on Chalabi’s real-life experiences, the play focuses on a Wigan-based family that encompasses both Egyptian and English heritage, with daughter Shazia finding herself pulled in several directions as she wrestles with the expectations of those around her.
The play is strong on the tender ties and messy tentacles of family life, with people having settled into convenient (if not always comfortable) routines. Between easy-going Ashraf, his conflicted daughter Shazia, assertive ex-wife Jean, and his judgemental brother Yusuf, there’s no shortage of blunt speaking – or underlying tensions.
When Ashraf returns from Egypt to announce he has a new wife, he discovers that Shazia has been secretly making plans for a marriage of her own – to Chris her long-term white boyfriend. Such a union, as Yusuf unhelpfully points out, might be seen as shameful by some in the local Muslim community. Sparks, as they say, are set to fly.
Glimpsed through the lens of the play, it might almost be tempting to see Wigan as a place of wonder – with exotic traditions and a strange diet – somewhere where everyone takes to the streets in fancy dress on Boxing Day, orders babby’s yed at the chippy, and lives in constant fear of diabetes.
Helen Coyston’s set offers a more humdrum perspective, with a lamp post, bollards, and slab of ever-changing sky glimpsed over the top of an imposing length of brick wall.
Other design choices feel less convincing. Much of Habibti Driver takes place inside a taxi, so using several car seats, fixed to a selection of wheeled platforms, must have seemed like a stroke of genius at planning stage. However, the constant moving and reconfiguring of them between scenes soon starts to become a distraction – like a pointless traffic jam – and by the interval I couldn’t help but wish they would fail their MOT.
On the night I was there, it was clear the Octagon audience were lapping up the play’s comedy. However, humour can be a tricky tool, and now and then I wondered about its use. Are we laughing with or at someone? Am I right to cringe when others roar with laughter? Fortunately, Chalabi and Henley’s writing manages to steer clear of any truly awkward moments, largely due to the warmth and good intentions that power their script.
There are though some deliberately sharp edges, which could be in danger of being lost amidst all the chuckling. Pointedly, the exact same topics that form the basis of Chris’s misfiring ‘jokes’ with Ashraf, are deployed to more vicious effect later in the mouths of racist thugs.
While elements of the show could sit comfortably within a tradition of character-driven comedy-fuelled Northern dramas – that doesn’t mean the writing isn’t bringing anything new to the table. In particular, Shazia’s struggle to juggle the various elements of her identity is thoughtfully explored – its impacts felt even within relationships with those closest to her.
When discovered drunk and unhappy by her father, she lashes out, “You don’t know me! You know a version of me, the version I think you can handle”.
With its well-drawn strong female characters, there’s also a focus on how women are forced to push back against the expectations placed upon them – and Shazia’s experience emphasises that no one culture has a monopoly on patriarchal pressures.
Despite the script’s many strengths, I found it hard to totally believe in the relationship between Chris and Shazia – their credibility as a pairing is too often jettisoned in pursuit of a convenient plot device. Also, after clocking up two hours of emotionally charged mileage, the play seemed to come to a sudden stop rather than a properly parked conclusion. Something which director Sepy Baghaei manages to cleverly conceal with an uplifting sequence of celebratory dance floor moves to end things on a party-like high.
Baghaei sprinkles a few more magical diversions like that throughout the production. Occasionally, when characters are lost in memories, daydreams, or hopes for a brighter future, there’ll be a burst of music, dance, and colour to elevate the moment.
Starring in a play based on elements of your own experience could be challenging, but as Shazia, Chalabi gives a strong and very likeable performance as a young woman asserting her right to shape her own identity in a world of competing (and conflicting) demands.
For all the fractious back and forth between daughter and father, Chalabi and Dana Haqjoo bring a nicely natural ease to the relationship. Haqjoo gets good value out of his role with his steady stream of crowd-pleasing Ashraf-isms (including fishy fingers, Hobby-nobs and Whatisapps).
When Ashraf’s new wife lands at the airport, it certainly shakes things up. It’s soon clear that not only is there more to Houda Echouafni’s Yasmin than meets the eye, but also that Echouafni has packed enough comedy chops and charm in her luggage to make a big impression. Yasmin’s infectious enthusiasm for her new life, along with her industrious optimism, transform the family dynamic – and Echouafni’s wonderful performance energises the production.
Chalabi and Henley’s play is similarly positive in outlook, determined to serve its slice of Wigan life sunny side up. Like the sing-a-long inducing songs that emanate from Ashraf’s car radio, Habibti Driver is unashamedly popular culture, with the ability to lift people’s spirits and bring them closer together.
Performance seen on 25 April 2022.
Images by Pamela Raith Photography