Dishoom! is the sound of a punch or a bullet from 70s Bollywood films, much like ‘Kapow!’ from American comic books.
As such, it is distinctly evocative of a childhood for a generation raised on those films. Meanwhile, arguably the greatest Hindi film ever and indisputably one of the most popular is Sholay, sometimes described as a ‘curry Western’, and this show, a co-production between Rifco Theatre Company and Oldham Coliseum, makes constant references to that film. So far, so culturally specific, you might imagine, and indeed Rifco, one of the UK’s most successful touring companies, proudly proclaims that it ‘produces plays and musicals that celebrate and reflect contemporary British Asian experiences, culture and society’. But Dishoom! is equally a play about the secrets and lies within families, the lack of understanding for disabled people, anti-immigrant feeling and the rise of Far Right groups, themes which ought to appeal far beyond that demographic.
It’s set in summer 1978 in small town England. Sixteen-year-old Simon (a debut performance from disabled actor Bilal Khan in a crucial role that would be daunting for any professional) has been in a wheelchair all his life and his Bibi/grandmother (Seema Bowri) has always been both ashamed and overly protective of him, while his widowed Dad (Omar Inbrahim) spends his life hiding in the pub.
But there is life outside their house, even if it’s not always easy, as Simon knows from his white friends Mark (Elijah Barker), Keith (James Mace) and Donna (Georgia Burnell), who all have their own reasons for wanting to escape. When Simon’s cousin Baljit (Gurkiran Kaur) comes to stay, ostensibly to look after him, she introduces him to the Bollywood classic, Sholay, (on VHS!) and the pair are inspired by the film’s dynamic duo, Jai and Veeru. Meanwhile, the National Front threatens violence with a provocative march through their community, and are successfully seducing frustrated youths like Keith, who, with a slightly abrupt change of heart, starts to blame “foreigners” with different coloured skin for his, and the town’s, economic woes.
There are successful elements to this entertaining story, especially the fantasy sequences in which Simon and Baljit set out to find their inner superheroes, and a well-judged performance from Seema Bowri that is equal parts terrifying and extremely funny. On the other hand, the inexperience of some of the young actors shows through now and again, making scenes which should be dynamic or inspiring fall a little flat. But there’s no doubting that Dishoom! has its heart in the right place and that this is a timely and relevant story that deserves to find an audience beyond the British Asian community.
Dishoom! is at Oldham Coliseum until October 13, 2018. For more information, click here.