Bradford. On the eve of a Conservative Party Conference the country is in turmoil and one of its most multicultural cities awaits a visit from the Prime Minister.
Multitudes, a play by actor and new writer John Hollingworth, focuses on a modern British family dealing with the issues of multiculturalism in their everyday lives. Kash, a liberal Muslim and widow, and parliamentary hopeful, prepares his address to politicians about the state of the nation. At the same time, his girlfriend Natalie converts to Islam and supports women at an anti-war protest, while his teenage daughter Qadira is looking at more radical action. The family is completed by Lyn, Natalie’s mother, a local Tory big shot who frequently airs her own views about multicultural Britain. As the nation questions immigration policies and military support in the Middle East, the family faces its own internal conflict of faith, belonging, and who gets to call themselves British.
There’s no denying that this is a bold and urgent new work, incredibly timely in light of the recent events in Britain, across Europe and the Middle East. Hollingworth is addressing a really important issue affecting contemporary Britain, and it is done in a way that doesn’t try and offer solutions, but simply forces us to look at the realities of the situation in a way that is not only accessible, but at times very humorous.
And that is part of the problem with the play. In a bid to make these representative characters more well-rounded, Hollingworth has written some great dialogue and there are many laugh-out-loud moments. During the first act this generally works well as we get to know the characters and it balances out the message we are rather heavy-handedly being given. However, the tone of Act Two is darker as the pace of the action picks up, and the quips and jibes still at play feel very out of place.
While Natalie, played well by Clare Calbraith, is relatable, the other characters often feel like stereotypes, and it’s hard to believe that Kash, even as a wannabe politician, would be so focused on his image in the media that he would fail to care when Natalie is injured in the protest, or ignore the worrying behaviour of his daughter. Credit though to both the direction and the performance from Jacqueline King; xenophobic little-Englander Lyn is, if not exactly likeable, a somewhat sympathetic character who simply feels out of her depth and desperately clinging to a familiarity that no longer exists.
I would have liked to know more about Qadira’s motivations, as her storyline is incredibly resonant and timely, but we are given very little insight into her past, and any understanding of how she came to think the way she does is lost behind a teenage sulkiness, which makes her more difficult to empathise with or take seriously until it’s too late.
Special mention must go to Asif Khan, who plays a range of supporting roles with real conviction and fantastic physicality. He has fun with the different roles without straying into parody and has a great energy on stage which draws you in.
It is a slick production, and the scenography, made up of a bare brick wall and sliding metal doors, works really well, used to create intimacy in the space, but also reinforcing the starkness of a place with confused identity, where the fenced-in protest camp is ever-present off-stage.
This is a brave attempt at addressing an issue that resonates across the UK and beyond, but I can’t help feeling it would have more impact if it had opened in Bradford, directly addressing the people it purports to represent. An engaging enough production, it is strangely both overzealous and not hard-hitting enough, so fails to really grab you by the throat and make you think harder about a challenging aspect of the modern world. And that is a missed opportunity.