It takes guts to write, produce and perform a comedy show lampooning your family, friends and community.
But courage is one thing British Pakistani comic, Nadia P. Manzoor, has plenty of.
One of few Muslim females to take up comedy performance as a career choice, Manzoor naturally garners public and media interest. Fortunately, her talent justifies the attention. Five minutes into her autobiographical act, ‘Burq Off!’, it’s clear you’re in for a fun and thought-provoking ride.
While using personal anecdotes as the foundation for comedy may not be a ground-breaking concept, Manzoor’s flair for combining elements of theatre, dance, monologue, mimicry and stand-up comedy more than makes for it.
Single-handedly playing 21 characters, ranging from her traditional parents, angry twin brother and English best friend to the dreaded Arabic teacher and ‘maulvi saheb’ whom she feared more than God, Manzoor’s hilarious delivery and knack for accents wins you over.
No topic is considered taboo or enactment too embarrassing.
Whether it’s revealing her shock at finding her conservative father’s saucy burlesque magazines, the awkwardness of wearing a ‘burqini’ on the Costa del Sol or losing her virginity to her Irish boyfriend, Manzoor’s truthfulness adds authenticity.
By her own admittance, Manzoor is a rebel who spent the majority of her upbringing being yelled at for disgracing the family name and izzat (honour).
It’s no surprise therefore that dinner table banter with her parents provides the main fodder for jokes in Burq Off.
Manzoor’s dreams of becoming an astronaut at five years of age are thwarted early on by her Abu (father) who insists her ultimate goal should be to become a wife and “make a man very happy”. Similarly, her Ammi (mother) teaching her to refer to her vagina as her “shame shame” and to hide the contours of her body while out walking, to avoid the lustful gaze of men, leads to amusing consequences and insights into cultural expectations.
Equating the sense of liberation Manzoor felt wearing a burqa in Mecca to later donning a bikini in Marbella leads to her questioning whether true freedom lies in modesty or nudity? The point is skilfully made through the medium of dance rather than overbearing dialogue.
Similarly refreshing is the subtle emotional undertone bought out in Manzoor’s relationship with her caring mother and the suffering of a family tragedy. Melodrama is thankfully avoided.
You don’t have to be young, female or Muslim to relate to the cultural and religious clashes Manzoor encountered growing up as a “Paki in Hertfordshire”. Living between two opposing worlds and moral perspectives brings with it the confusion and stress many teenagers feel growing up. The necessity of lying to families in order to experience the kind of life and freedom desired by young Asians is a point well made by Manzoor. What’s also clear is the futility of these little white lies that inevitably grow to become causes of personal conflict.
The struggle to be heard and for ones’ opinions and aspirations to matter form the crux of Manzoor’s performance.
By inserting facts related to problems faced by Muslim women she effectively explores issues of gender, identity and sexuality. Simple statistics related to forced marriage and honour killings provoke thought without being a downer.
While the stage backdrop of colourful saris may be clichéd, what is impressive is Manzoor’s skillful use of a simple red dupatta as her main prop. Transforming the fabric into a range of items, including a hijab, bikini, boob tube, shawl, doll, telephone and newspaper, illustrates her creativity.
At a bum-numbing 90 minutes without an interval, ‘Burq Off!’ could do with a trim in duration, perhaps removing one of the numerous outbursts of dance.
However, one thing is for sure; while the audience may fidget in their seats to regain sensation, the physical energy demanded of Manzoor in performing Burq Off is far greater and ultimately impressive.
‘Burq Off!’ is at London’s Cockpit Theatre until 14 September.