Tuesday 8th October 2019 at Leeds Playhouse.
Musharaf Asghar was irrevocably written into pop culture when that episode of Educating Yorkshire aired back in 2013. The U.K. collectively shed tears for the wee lad helped by his quirky English teacher’s chance-encounter with The King’s Speech. It’s the stuff of Hollywood holiday movies: the struggle inspirationally overcome and the crowd goes wild. The best thing about Mushy – Lyrically Speaking however, is its unfiltered take on the realities behind those few moments of reality television.
The Mushy we meet here isn’t exactly worlds away from the TV image, but it’s close. Here, Mushy sheds the crafted image of the poor boy stammering his way through high school in a state of constant anxiety. Such a boy features here, but the production brings the boy we all think we know to the fore with a teen charm and a charisma which was heavily masked by the show. It doesn’t exactly renounce the reality TV machine but it certainly highlights the way in which such snapshots, which are inherently manipulated, create illusions around individuals which can take a significant toll.
The production benefits from an accomplished cast who take ownership of comedy and drama equally well though in truth the comedy is much stronger. Varun Raj and Oliver Longstaff are fantastic as leads Mushy and Mr Burton respectively and Raj carries the production with ease, bringing unseen elements of Mushy to light endearingly and without simply going for the heart strings. The pair have managed to capture the mannerisms of their muses perfectly – from intonations to hair ruffles, the pairing is re-created well and it’s both enlightening and entertaining to see the dynamics shifting as Mushy matures and begins to reflect on the events shaping his future.
We’re taken beyond the classroom into Mushy’s home life too, where we meet Ammi, played by Medhavi Patel with an air of the highly strung stereotypical mother with grand aspirations for her child. Patel is hilarious and demonstrates the best comic timing and landing of one liners to be found in this production. With the combined charms of Raj and Patel, the scenes between aspirational parent and struggling child actually quickly become the most dynamic and compelling to watch.
It’s through the slick designs of Eleanor Bull that we flit between settings. She brings to this production the same flair with efficient staging as the previous hit Windrush: Movement of the People, providing neat cubby holes to house whole scene shifts. A single unit of locker-speakers masks a variety of elements brought into play and stashed away with great pace and no fuss – classroom becomes living room and a marking corner disappears to be replaced simply by Mushy’s place of respite: the boy’s loos…
But Lyrically Speaking presents some issues even while it parades its strengths. Raxstar’s lyrics (Composer Niraj Chag) and the decision to have Mushy confide in us via sparky rap moments keeps the production lively and contemporary for the most part, but the second act definitely loses its way in terms of pace and continuity, straying into additional narrative threads like the back story of Ammi and the exploration of how Mushy feels about his status and treatment as a racial minority.
It’s not that those elements of back stories and inner struggles are poorly selected, but rather that they feel shoehorned in and under-developed. To include such elements makes greater depth absolutely necessary to really do them justice – and the same goes for the fleeting insights into the traumatic domestic backdrop of Mr Burton. The production would benefit significantly from streamlining to focus purely on Mushy or investing in a longer running time to allow for development of the narrative strands introduced in Act 2.
It’s a testament to Pravesh Kumar’s book that Mushy’s story never descends into superficial tear jerking moments. There’s plenty of friction, but there’s little in the way of the raw emotions extracted back in 2013. Director Ameet Chana offers us something which feels very contemporary and lively, bringing a story we all know to the stage with a good dose of theatrical style. Offering insights through rap gives the production both a playful dynamic (in part thanks to Robbie Butler’s lighting) and a gritty edge, putting a little profanity in the mouth of a boy we saw through a sanitised lens on the box – here, he’s a real, rounded teen and it’s thoroughly entertaining to watch. While the production does lose direction somewhat in Act 2, the structural flaws don’t diminish what is ultimately a very strong production of a great story.
Rifco Theatre Company’s Mushy – Lyrically Speaking plays Leeds Playhouse until October 12th and you can find tickets here.