Out of Sorts review – deeply tender drama about belonging

Zara is a British-Arab millennial who feels the strain of her double-barrelled identity: to her white British friends, she is a vegan hipster who loves to party. To her Arab refugee family, she is a modern Muslim woman, engaged to her sweetheart, Jameel, and on her way to becoming a lawyer.

In reality, Zara (Nalân Burgess) isn’t quite sure of who she wants to be and the conflicted sides of her identity play out in parallel scenes: her family kitchen is on one side of the stage and the trendy breakfast bar of her house-share with her best friend, Alice, is on the other.

With Alice, she eats smashed avocado and the two friends share a discomfiting humour that relies on othering Zara’s Arab heritage. When she visits her parents, it is not they but Zara’s more traditional sister, Fatima, who accuses Zara of self-loathing.

Parent power … Myriam Acharki as Layla, Nayef Rashed as Hussein and Nalân Burgess in Out of Sorts. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Not all of the humour works and there are halting moments in the performances, though these are glitches among the play’s greater accomplishments. Oznur Cifci as Fatima, and Myriam Acharki as Zara’s gentle mother, Layla, are spellbinding to watch. And where Out of Sorts might have run the risk of treading familiar ground around culture clash and identity, Danusia Samal’s script gathers complexity and emotion as the piece progresses. It is a play about race and belonging, and a coming-of-age story of friendship and betrayal, of an eating disorder and, most movingly, of the love between mothers and daughters.

There is no hint of stereotype in Hussein, Zara’s taxi-driver father, or her mother, a stay-at-home wife who wears a headscarf. It is clear that they have allowed their daughters to choose the lives they want in the west. When Zara returns home as the prodigal daughter, her eyes bloodshot from carousing, they lavish her with love and extravagant pride, even though her cultural rejection of them contains its own pain.

Emma Denly as Alice and Claudius Peters as Anthony.

Siloed lives … Emma Denly as Alice and Claudius Peters as Anthony. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Beyond Zara’s two homes, it is clear she is living in a Britain that seethes with race hate. Every non-white character is placed in a racial silo, from Alice’s black British boyfriend, Anthony, who faces casual daily racism, to Fatima, labelled “Bin Laden” by her neighbours for wearing a headscarf, and to Zara’s father, who is called a terrorist by his passengers. Whiteness and “wokeness” are explored, too, through the character of Alice, who, as overbearing and unwittingly offensive as she is, is drawn with compassion. Despite the various hypocrisies and failings of the characters, the drama leaves us moved by each one of them. And for all its identity politics, this play is ultimately about family love, and is deeply tender.

At Theatre 503, London, until 2 November.

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