Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices.
Week 23: Rachel De-lahay’s The Westbridge (2011)
When rumours spread surrounding the brutal attack of an Asian girl by a group of black boys on the Westbridge estate the repercussions are felt by various members of the local community. Teenager Andre has been kicked out of home by his mum; Saghir is forced to close his shop early in fear of looters and rioters while his daughter, Soriya, begins to have doubts about her relationship with boyfriend Marcus. Racial tensions resurface and generational differences come to the fore in De-lahay’s funny and honest depiction of modern south-west London life.
The play explores the ever-increasing multicultural landscape of urban Britain and the evolving cultural identities of its people. De-lahay takes an interesting viewpoint on this topic as she highlights the simultaneous fracturing and intermingling of cultures and the resulting confusion experienced by the younger generations. Both Marcus and Soriya come from mixed-race families, and Soriya is proud of her half-Pakistani heritage, despite ridiculing her brother about his arranged marriage. At the beginning of the play she is confident in her relationship with White-Afro-Caribbean Marcus, he is even moving in with her. Yet over the course of the play she begins to have reservations about their suitability due to their different cultural upbringings and misgivings about her own dual heritage. She even begins to contemplate an arranged marriage herself – ‘I want to have Pakistani children for a Pakistani husband. I don’t want them to be as confused as I am’. Meanwhile, there are fears that the Pakistani community are merely using the attack accusations as an excuse to retaliate against the black community. Apparently, cultures coming together isn’t always rosy, and can present potentially problematic clashes.
I took special interest in The Westbridge and its depiction of a multicultural neighbourhood as I live just 200 yards from the most multicultural road in Britain (Narborough Road, Leicester – apparently). My local area is choc full of varying nationalities and this is most evident in the multitude of shops and takeaways: Indian, Chinese, Polish, Turkish, Caribbean, to name but a few. Similarly, De-lahay presents much of this cultural nourishment – food is mentioned a lot, whether it’s Soriya’s flatmate, George, chastising others for eating when she’s dieting, or the feast prepared by the (absent) Umra for Marcus’ first meeting with Saghir. The characters bond over food, yet it is also a notable marker of identity. When Soriya expresses the wish to cook for Marcus ‘something you grew up eating’, his response, ‘rice and peas or festivals? Babes, that’s not me’, highlights the reality of being mixed-race without having any sense of dual heritage.
From Elmina’s Kitchen to Gone Too Far!, The Westbridge is one of many plays which explore multicultural contemporary Britain, something which was perhaps previously ignored on major stages. Furthermore, De-lahay’s refusal to present issues surrounding race, culture and identity in a black and white way, as seen in the touching concluding scene, treats such themes with the complexity they require.