Approaching Empty: the house built on sand

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A play from a company the brings Asian stories to mainstream theatre, but a play that is universal, Approaching Empty is an excellent story of a road to hell that’s paved with good intentions.

Tamasha Theatre might not be a name recognised my many, but their most famous production, East is East, certainly is. That play is credited by many for bringing theatre about South Asian communities out of the niche and into the mainstream. Since then, Tamasha have been keeping busy with lots of plays, and now the latest collaboration is with Live Theatre and Kiln theatre with a north-east connection. Playwright Ishy Din originates from Middlesbrough and Approaching Empty is heavily inspired by his time as a taxi driver. There is a big difference though: East is East was about a culture clash where conservative values of Pakistan clashed with the more liberal values on 1970s Salford; but Approaching Empty is a more universal story. The six characters in this story are all Asian, but that’s not what defines them. No, the defining feature here is the struggle of a post-industrial generation. Apart from a few incidental details, this could be a story from any working-class community.

There’s been a lot of talk over how diverse Live Theatre’s programme is this year. Normally I just go ahead and review plays without commenting on how diverse it is. It is of course an important issue, but this distracts from what’s surely the more important issue, namely how good the play is. But I will make an exception to state that on this blog, diversity scores no bonus points in reviews. All plays stand or fall on their merits as a play. I do not want anyone thinking I only gave a good review to a play for ticking the right boxes. And I especially want to make this clear here, because Approaching Empty is the best thing I’ve seen at Live Theatre for years.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre: Approaching Empty, Live Theatre / Kiln Theatre / Tamasha

The play is set against the backdrop of Margaret Thatcher’s death, but the taxi firm that life-long friends Raf and Mansha operate is also a legacy of Thatcher. Both men used to work for big industrial employers; now, like many blue-collar workers life them, they run their own business. The play is neither overtly pro-Thatcher or overtly anti-Thatcher – in fact, Raf and Mansha are on opposite ends of the debate and they both argue their sides well. Pre-Thatcher life is not clear-cut either. Mansha was happiest in his life when he helped build bridges shipped all over the world and felt pride to be part of it, but friends of his worked in jobs that are now killing them. Right now, however, the free market is working against them – Fleet taxis are taking over their town, and their business is slowly losing the battle.

Like most of the best plays, however, it works on many levels, and the post-Thatcher backdrop is just one of them. The other theme, the one that will come to dominate the story, is the perils of mixing friends and family with business. Raf’s son and Mansha’s son-in-law are both with the firm, as is a woman in Mansha’s extended family seeking to go straight after time inside. Then firm owner Raf decides to call it a day and gets an offer from Fleet to sell the firm to them. Mansha is desperate for anything but a takeover from his rivals – so much, he’ll do whatever it takes to buy the firm himself. But trust and built up over a life-long friendship is not always enough, and when your closest friend has secrets you don’t know, a handshake can be a dangerous thing.

Ishy Din’s characterisation is done very cleverly. None of the characters in the firm are bad people – all of them look out for each other and all of their motives are easily understandable. But put together, the cracks in both their businesses and friendships come to light. Act of kindness mix with white lies. White lies mix with acts of self-interest. Acts of self-interest turn into acts of desperation, and most devastating of all are the acts of omission, most of all over an omission over the real state of the firm. As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Approaching Empty works on many different levels, but for me, this most strikes a chord as a tale of fall from innocence: a cut corner here, and an off-the-book transaction there, and eventually it plays into the hands of the worst people.

There is one small but irritating thing with the set. The back will with a road map of the local area was a great idea, as was the glowing postal districts. But after Live Theatre heavily implied this play was set in Ishy Din’s home town of Middlesbrough, why oh why was there a map of Five Ways, Birmingham? For anyone who assumed that no-one from Teesside would come and notice that: I came, and I noticed. This matters very little to the play – there’s far more to it than a map – but it is a little disappointing that this kind of sloppiness that you’d never get away with for a Newcastle map seems acceptable for the other end of the north-east. I have nothing else to fault with the production though. Even with the tight space and difficult sightlines that come with Live Theatre’s stage, Pooja Ghai did what was needed to keep the story running smoothly.

One final thing to note is an important but overlooked factor: the north-east NPO theatre organisations are concentrated in Newcastle, but Approaching Empty is, I believe, the first time a main-stage production has been set on Teesside since Brilliant Adventures, over five years ago. It will take more than one play every five years to redress the balance. But maybe, just maybe, this will be the start of a change. One promising bit of breaking news is that Ishy Din is co-writing a musical with Twenty Seven Productions (best known for their Halloween productions in Newcastle Castle) about the decline of the steel industry. His perception of the changes brought from things like this, and the characters this makes of people, was intelligent, astute, and tells things as they are, made one play one of the best I’ve seen – if he continues to do this for his home town, this could be the long-overdue change Teesside deserves to be put back on the cultural map.

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