Alia Bano's engaging, if clunkily constructed play offers mainstream audiences a fascinating window into the experience of being young, single and Muslim in today's London.

Alia Bano’s engaging, if clunkily constructed play offers mainstream audiences a fascinating window into the experience of being young, single and Muslim in today’s London. The launch play of this year’s Royal Court Young Writers Festival, “Shades” benefits considerably from Nina Raine’s stylish production, as well as empathetic performances from a highly watchable cast.

The material’s freshness is apparent from the first scene, in which pretty singleton Sabrina (Stephanie Street) attends a Muslim speed-dating session. Her gay best friend Zain (Navin Chowdhry ) has come along mostly to encourage her, but is also proving a hit with the ladies, which comes as no surprise to Sabrina: “You’re liberal, you’re an artist — basically white, but you’re brown, perfect.”

At its best, the dialogue is fun and zingy, and the play also lets us into the complex codes, expectations and restrictions of the world it describes. Perhaps too schematically, the characters represent the widely varying experiences (or, hence the title, shades) of British Muslim life today.

Falling for the devout, yet Western-dressing Reza (Amit Shah) forces Sabrina to consider becoming more observant (symbolized all too obviously by having her try on a hijab in the first act’s final moments). By coming out, Zain has ostracized himself, but is still grappling with ways to turn his religious background into a workable moral code (most amusingly when he justifies taking ecstasy rather than drinking alcohol because pills aren’t mentioned in the Qu’ran).

On one level this works as a slightly contrived, topical rom-com (Sabrina and Reza meet cute while working on a Gaza fashion show benefit), but by speaking with knowledge and compassion from (presumably) within the community she represents, Bano offers a counterpoint to depictions that demonize or exoticize Muslims.

Like so many of today’s early-career plays, “Shades” feels televisual, but Raine adds theatrical interest by setting the whole production on a catwalk (designed by Lucy Osborne), with the audience on both sides watching each other as well as the action.

There’s nowhere to hide on this stage, but each member of the cast rises to the challenge with performances of bracing honesty. Even Elyes Gabel manages to convince in the stock-baddy role of Ali, Reza’s slickster best buddy, who also has designs on Sabrina. Matthew Needham makes a particularly strong impression in the less-than-promising role of Zain’s white b.f. Mark.

Bano could easily get snapped up as a TV writer on the strength of this debut, but one hopes she’ll keep exploring new ways to turn her fresh insights into theatrical form.

Shades

Jerwood Theater Upstairs; 80 seats; £15 $22 top

Production

A Royal Court Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Alia Bano. Directed by Nina Raine.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Lucy Osborne; lighting, Matt Drury; sound, David McSeveney; production stage manager, Tariq Rifaat. Opened Feb. 3, 2009. Reviewed Feb. 5. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast

Sabrina - Stephanie Street Zain - Navin Chowdhry Ali - Elyes Gabel Mark - Matthew Needham Reza - Amit Shah Nazia - Chetna Pandya
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