A ‘Hounslow Girl’ wears hooped earrings with her hijab, can make Gulab Jamun and Rusmalai but eats them to stave off the munchies, goes to the mosque but also meets up with boys. She performs a balancing act, negotiating the conflicting demands of a traditional Muslim upbringing and being a young woman living in West London. Ambreen Razia’s debut play – a one-woman show about Hounslow Girl Shaheeda – is a confident, funny exploration of adolescence and identity that challenges stereotypes.
Shaheeda rushes into her boxed bedroom with a shining black eye, hastily ripping off a Salwar Kameez and throwing clothes into a suitcase – she’s running out of time, she has to get away before her family can find her, but she needs to tell her story before they do. And what will she say? First thoughts: Shaheeda must be fleeing familial violence, fearful of forced marriage or honour killings. Mustn’t she? Razia’s script cleverly exposes what audiences initially expect from a story about Muslim characters, squashing assumptions over the ensuing 80 minutes. Shaheeda’s bruise, as it turns out, isn’t the result of domestic abuse but a scrap with a schoolmate, and the story she tells, though undoubtedly impacted by the pressure of her family’s values, doesn’t feel dissimilar from what any other teenage girl might experience.
Razia has created, and performs, a realistically complex 16-year old. Shaheeda is cutting and witty, dramatic and restless – she’s outgrown home and longs to see the world: “I can’t stay here. I think I might die, or worse, be alive in Hounslow.” Her tiny blank bedroom feels claustrophobic, and a blow-up globe dangles above her bed, just out of reach. But the play isn’t confined within these four walls, as Shaheeda’s lively storytelling sees her re-enact conversations and moments with loved ones, shopkeepers, friends and her Imam. And like any contemporary teen, even from a tiny bedroom in Hounslow Shaheeda is in constant communication with the world, across her Facebook, Insta, Snapchat and phone.
Though a couple of times the writing strays into slightly saccharine territory, on the whole the script is sharp and very, very funny, packed with one-liners and acerbic observations. Shaheeda is desperate to tell us about her life, and though her narrative is a British Muslim girl’s story, it is also a coming of age story, a working class story, a story about mothers and daughters, and a feminist story. The Diary of a Hounslow Girl is a bold piece that firmly rejects any political baggage.
Follow Children’s Theatre Reviews on Twitter @ctheatrereviews