Theatre review: Approaching Empty, Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh

It was chilly in the Roxy on Friday evening but not cold enough – even with a 20- minute interval – to drive away an audience held firmly in the grip of Ishy Din’s terrific new play, co-produced by Tamasha Theatre of London, the Kiln in Kilburn and Live Theatre, Newcastle.

Ishy Din's Approaching Empty has echoes of Arthur Miller, but with a faster, wittier sitcom style

Approaching Empty, Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh ****

Set in the office of an Asian-owned taxi company in an English city, Approaching Empty draws on Din’s experience as a Middlesbrough taxi driver to tell a powerful tale, set against the murmuring television backdrop of Margaret Thatcher’s death and funeral in 2013, of a profound clash of cultures and values between old mates Raf, who owns the company, and Mansha, who effectively runs it for him.

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In a beautifully structured play with strong thematic echoes of Arthur Miller – but with a faster, wittier sitcom style – it soon emerges that Raf has bought into the harsh, individualistic ideology of the Thatcher age whereas Mansha believes that values such as human decency and solidarity can still work, both in life and in business. Raf’s health is failing; and to secure his family’s finances he first sells the company for cash to Mansha and two other employees – drivers Sully and Sameena – then double-crosses them, handing them a “real” set of books that show the company in deep financial trouble.

The betrayal not only tips Mansha and his partners towards an ugly protection-racket underworld, but triggers a strong and highly personal dispute about whether the crude law of might-is-right must always prevail in life and business, or whether a just, decent and peaceful society is still possible.

In Pooja Ghai’s superbly paced production, the argument is handled with a rare combination of light-touch theatrical energy and dramatic weight, thanks in large part to a pitch-perfect central performance from Kammy Darweish as Mansha, the older Asian man who can still remember a time of well-paid manufacturing jobs making things that mattered, and a social and working-class solidarity that Thatcher went out of her way to smash.

There’s also impressive support from Rina Fatania in the unforgettable character of tough-talking ex-jailbird Sameena and Karan Gill in Milleresque form as Raf’s increasingly appalled student son. The play ends on a moment of pure, meditative theatrical magic, as Mansha finally lifts his eyes from the taxi-office desk towards a wider world that may just help him find a new sense of himself, and of what his life has been worth. - JOYCE MCMILLAN