During lockdown, many conversations began to emerge online about how much theatres were missed.
And as we contemplated which productions we were going to see, people also began to discuss representation and how they were tired of the same old plays, with obvious casting.
Habibti Driver is a new play written by Shamia Chalabi and Sarah Henley, and even though the marketing material cleverly sends up the film Baby Driver recast, it is essentially a play about family, identity and finding your way in the world; the funny moments and the misconceptions.
And it’s set in Wigan.
Ashraf (Dana Haqjoo) is an Egyptian/Muslim taxi driver who likes to please all those all round him. Like all of the character in this warm and engaging play, he is fully rounded.
He runs off to Egypt to get married and tells no-one, yet he likes to try to impose his views on his daughter Shaz’s relationship. He also loves a good viral goat video.
He arrives back in the UK with his new bride Yasmin (Houda Echouafni) who seems subservient when she first appears. But as the play progresses, she becomes a feisty, strong and loving woman who can stand on her own feet.
Daughter Shazia (Shamia Chalabi) is mixed heritage and even thought her father would prefer her to be at the mosque, she prefers the local pub and hanging out with her hapless, yet lovable fiancé Chris (Timothy O’Hara) – who hasn’t got a clue about Egyptian culture.
Add to the mix Ashraf’s ex-wife and Shaz’s mum – Jean (Helen Sheals) – a ballsy woman – mad keen on two things; an Aldi bargain and her daughter. Yusuf is Ashraf’s controlling brother (Hemi Yeroham) and watching this interesting mix of characters leads to many comic situations mixed with high drama.
Like Peter Kay’s sit com Car Share, the action is set within a vehicle and in this case, it is Ashraf’s taxi cab.
This works to a degree because if you think about the conversations we have in a car, it can be a joyful experience but also stressful, as the driver has the car and traffic to contend with, so they cannot often ‘drive’ the conversation as much as they would like. And if you are saying something uncomfortable, the setting is very claustrophobic and there is no escape.
Helen Coyston’s costume design is spot on and incredibly authentic and speaks volumes about identity and the way that we see ourselves, or more importantly how we want to be seen by others.
The set although inventive feels a bit clunky, as the cab is pushed on and off the stage constantly. It slows down the narrative and even though the car is used as a place of conflict, comedy and compassion, you long for a scene in Ashraf’s home, in order for the characters to take a breather and sit on a couch and chat about nothing, like The Royle Family.
Director Sepy Baghaei ensures that each of the characters have a spotlight on them and the comedy scenes work really well.
The audience on the night I attended appreciated jokes about identity, culture, stereotypes and pies.
This is a really playful production, ideal if you have had a long or stressful day at work, as it does make you laugh out loud. There are some moments though when the dialogue is delivered at such a gag per minute rate, that some jokes are not heard with the clarity that they deserve.
The performances are so authentic that you believe this is a family, as the chemistry between the actors is everything.
Dana Haqjoo is brilliant as Ashraf – a dad who wants to do right by his religion and his daughter and everyone else around him. He never wants to use the word no and therefore his life is pretty chaotic.
Enter Houda Echouafni as his new wife Yasmin, who has such brilliant comic timing that you know she will be the soothing balm that Ashraf never knew he needed. I loved this character and Houda’s performance, as she exudes warmth and seeks solutions and balance. If only she was in No 10 Downing Street.
Shamia Chalabi highlights Shaz’s identity dilemmas perfectly, as she has the steeliness of her white British mother, yet wants to do right by her dad, who she adores.
Timothy O’Hara is great as Chris, as he wants to find out more and this is why he keeps making lame jokes.
This is where this play excels as it is never preachy and it celebrates our flaws and our mistakes.
Helen Sheals gives Jean a tell it like it is attitude, yet beneath this façade lies loyalty.
Hemi Yeroham knows that less is sometimes more and his pauses mean that the comic situations become funnier, as you wait for them with bated breath. My only wish, is that I wanted more of his character, as he feels slightly underwritten compared with the others.
There are some scenes that could be cut shorter to make this piece flow more and because the cab is the setting it does mean scene transitions are not as fast as you would like.
But there is so much heart, earthy humour and solid performances, that this feels like a tip worthy cab journey worth taking.
So get to The Octagon, get your seat belt on and enjoy the ride. I did.
Habibi Driver is at the Octagon theatre until 7th May and can be booked here.