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English - Review

In an Iranian classroom, four adults navigate the challenges of mastering English as a foreign language, honing their accents, and tackling the dreaded TOEFL exam. “English” is a delightful fly-on-the-wall comedy that delves into the authentic struggles and triumphs of immigration. The writer, Sanaz Toossi, skilfully explores themes of identity with care and nuance, making it no surprise that this play clinched the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2023. It is a thoroughly enjoyable experience that captures the essence of the immigrant experience with humour and heart.  

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Omid (Nojan Khazai), Roya (Lanna Joffrey), and Goli (Sarah Hazemi) working at the desk.

The narrative unfolds across a brisk six-week advanced course, each character harbouring their own motivations for mastering the language. Roya, portrayed with dry wit by Lanna Joffrey, aims to relocate to Canada to be with her son, abiding by his request to converse only in English with her grandchild. Elham, brought to life by Serena Manteghi, embodies the passionate young academic eager to pursue advanced studies abroad. Omid (Nojan Khazai) grapples with the pressure to excel in English as part of the stringent American green-card process. Meanwhile, Goli, (Sara Hazemi) exudes an endearing 18-year-old innocence. Their tutor, Marjan, skilfully portrayed by Nadia Albina, years to reclaim the sense of belonging she found living in Manchester, England for 9 years.  

  

Staged at the RSC’s intimate studio theatre, The Other Place, the production unfolds over 90 minutes, without an interval. Employing a clever dramatic device, the actors seamlessly transition between RP (Received Pronunciation) English and broken English, effectively conveying the characters’ frustration at their inability to express themselves in their new language. This not only enhances the storytelling by providing insight into the characters’ struggles but also serves as a rich source of humour throughout the play. While not a gritty drama or a tightly plotted narrative, the play shines as a captivating character-driven story. This allows the play to end with unanswered questions, as the audience ponders the fates of the characters without feeling too cheated — What happened to Roya? Did Goli pass her exam? Will Marjan ever move back to the UK? 

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The cast listening to Marjan (Nadia Albina)

The staging is minimalist yet purposeful, featuring barely more than five chairs, two tables, and a whiteboard, ensuring the audiences were not distracted. The sound and lighting design, though straightforward, proved highly effective, adeptly shifting to match the time of day or the mood of the scene. Refreshingly, the creative team avoided clichés, steering clear of the stereotypical orange hues and sitar music often associated with Middle Eastern settings.  

  

One uproarious moment that had the audience in stitches occurred when Gold shared her current favourite English-language song, ‘Whenever, Wherever; by Shakira, prompting laughter as she attempted to decode its seemingly nonsensical lyrics. This humorous scene highlighted the challenges of interpreting English as a second language. However, Shakira’s song was not the only nostalgic pop-culture reference in the show. The cleverly chosen nods to English culture struck a balance between being universally recognised and feeling deeply personal, adding layers of charm and relatability to a production set nearly 4,000 miles away.  

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Elham (Serena Manteghi) and Omid (Nojan Khazai) playing ball

This is not the type of theatre that aims to revolutionise your worldview or leave you reeling in awe. Instead, it invites you to approach it with an open mind and appreciate its though-provoking narrative. After watching the show, my friend and I found ourselves engaged in stimulating discussions about the characters, their experiences and the broader issues surrounding migration. I highly recommend catching “English” at The Other Place until June 1st, 2024, or at the Kiln Theatre in London when it transfers on June 5th. 

English Poster
Artwork for the play featuring the playwright Sanaz Toossi

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