Four Lions is a First Rate Play: A Review

The poet Shailja Patel called Urdu a ‘language of dancing peacocks / rosewater fountains / even its curses are beautiful.’ She might change her mind if she saw Adham Smart and Johnny Lucas’ stage adaptation of Four Lions; the most bilingual play Oxford has seen in a while and definitely the coarsest and most effective. Hasan al-Habib’s furious, absurd rhetorical flourishes of flowing Urdu profanity were just the icing on the cake (the chutney on the samosa?) of a play that gave us a potent script, complex but unpretentious acting and some of the funniest black comedy I’ve seen.

The directors kept in an impressive amount of the film, and even more impressively imbued the performance with more meaning and poignancy than the original. Though, not at the cost of humour, the show was full of energy and hilarity from start to finish. But fitting so many small scenes and plot points together did fragment the play a little, and left a few audience members unsure about some of the narrative’s smaller details.

Moreover, it was easy to wish for a more daring adaptation, that cut more and added more. Beautiful opportunities came up to talk about feminism and Islam, but these were cut short, and why not throw in more about British South Asian culture and its quirkiness? Now more than ever is the time to talk about diaspora, cultural mixing and clashing, especially concerning Islam. But it’s unfair to bring these criticisms to one of the few plays that even touches on these matters. Last time I checked, no one criticised Edward II for failing to engage with structural Islamophobia.

Adham, Johnny and their team have taken a cult movie and made it into a first rate play.

There’s plenty to celebrate in this play. Adham starred in Frey Kwa Hawking’s outstanding Death Grip last term, and clearly has Frey’s passion for tackling the lack of actors of colour on the Oxford stage. The project created excellent roles for old hands and for less experienced actors of colour. This mix of well-crafted experience and unbridled enthusiasm for the piece was fantastic to watch.

Shannon Hayes played the cheerful but slow jihadi Waj with excellent comic energy and timing, and yet she somehow also turned his story from something sad into something incredibly human and touching. Hasan al-Habib’s Omar was complex and bold, without a touch of thespy over-acting, and Oluwafemi Nylander played every one of his roles with matchless, confident skill.

Despite very good or astoundingly good performances from every actor, their positioning on the stage was not the most adventurous and bordered on clumsy. Lighting and set design were simple and might have seemed a bit cobbled together if it wasn’t for the decision to cover most of the back wall in a big piece of projection. Striking at first this was soon effortlessly effective and put to very good use. Even if the technical side of things wasn’t the best, the play made this seem pretty irrelevant – and it’s worth remembering that this is the Pilch, not the O’Reilly or the Playhouse.

The soundtrack for this show was something quite special. Riz MC’s ‘Englistan’ set the tone of the play like nothing else could: playing a solid chunk of it over a blackout between the first two scenes was stunningly good. I won’t lie, some of the anti-establishment Franco-Arabic rap did go a bit over my head, but its tone and atmosphere was definitely appropriate.

Adham, Johnny and their team have taken a cult movie and made it into a first rate play. It is hilarious, fast and striking. Criticising a play as ambitious as this one is easy, so let me be clear: this is one of the best pieces of student drama that’s hit Oxford. Four Lions deserves the hype and if you didn’t get a ticket, you missed out.