Often, exciting new writers are described as possessing ‘distinctive and fresh voices.’ Yet, what excites me about Ishy Din, is that I cannot hear his voice. Instead, Snookered presents a rich range of new voices, as four Muslim lads meet in a pool hall ‘up North’, to mark their friend’s death. Each character is surprising and each has his own, deeply personal idiom. The result is a play that feels refreshingly humble, generous and open, spurred on by the characters’ credible swings in emotion rather than the playwright’s political agenda or preeningly complex structure.
Ishy Din is not your usual Royal Court Programme playwright and has, in his time, worked in video shops and restaurants and driven mini cabs. This unusual background shows. Although Ishy Din’s straightforward plotting might lack the tricksy ambition of a more polished writer, this is a playwright with a natural ear for dialogue, alternately comic and touching, and an instinctive feel for emotional arcs.
Snookered does, with its unassuming structure, take a little time to warm up. The four friends are initially awkward together and their chat stilted. But as the drinks are downed, the dialogue loosens up. The lightly-bruising banter is peppered with unfamiliar lingo. The lads refer to each other as ‘chicken’, ‘giraffe’, ‘coconut’ or ‘cabbage’. This might sound like a modest achievement but to create four characters who share a common, but varied and lifelike language, is no mean feat.
Director Iqbal Khan keeps things suitably low-key and, for much of the time, we’re simply hanging out with the lads. One begins to feel part of their crowd, involved and not distinct. This is helped by the near-mute barman whose subtle reactions to the lads’ increasingly strained reunion, mirror our own. We are watching and learning together.
Apart from the conclusion, which introduces an unnecessarily amped up plot twist, the play’s high-points are touchingly mediocre. As the lads share stories about their relative successes, it becomes clear that Shaf – who is struggling with his ample kids and meagre career prospects – believes he has found his golden ticket. After much needling, he reveals his dream: he wants to open a fried chicken shop. As Shaf excitedly discusses his hopeless fantasy, his friends laugh at him. It is painful to watch this modest dream batted away and to see Shaf, temporarily vulnerable and hopeful, beaten back down by his friends.
Similarly compromised crescendos emerge elsewhere. Mo works at his dad’s butchers and, despite his friends’ teasing, seems fairly happy with his lot. His prevailing optimism is later crushed, though, when his friends reveal his snooker cue is not so special after all. It sure as hell didn’t belong to Stephen Hendry. Mo is forced to accept the banality of his most treasured possessions, just as Shaf was forced to drop his chicken shop dream. Perhaps, Din seems to be saying, it isn’t location or religion that defines us but the reality, which we allow ourselves – and our friends allow us – to believe in.