This lean multi-generational family drama explores ways of mothering, and the emotional punch, when it comes, is well worth the wait even if there are a few bumps along the way.
Three generations of British Asian women make up the working-class family in Ambreen Razia’s play: a prodigal daughter, of sorts, in Aleena (Avita Jay), who returns home after a two-year stint behind bars to her doting daughter, Leila (Ashna Rabheru), and a quietly judgmental mother, Noor (Renu Brindle).
A Clean Break co-production, its tender dissection of motherhood intersects with class, immigrant life, addiction and faith, alongside the emotional effects of incarceration. Aleena was an alcoholic before prison life turned her into a clean-living yogi, or so she claims. Noor has been raising her granddaughter, Leila, as a practising Muslim but Aleena discourages her daughter from wearing a hijab, and from Islam as a whole. This is one ongoing battle played out between the older mother and daughter but other animosities swim under the surface, perhaps unspoken for a little too long.
Co-directed by Róisín McBrinn and Sophie Dillon Moniram, it has a slow-burn start, sometimes seeming too much like a kitchen-sink drama (there is, in fact, a kitchen sink on stage as part of Liz Whitbread’s set).
There are also a few sudden shifts in tone, including a scene in which the living room turns into a beauty salon and Aleena magically tends to Leila’s every wish. Maybe it is a fantasy or a flash of magical realism – it is never explained. The character of Fozia (Rina Fatania), an interfering old friend of the family, seems like a flat comic cliche invading this sensitive and serious drama.
But the most powerful material rises above these elements as the play progresses and builds to a potent end. Razia’s script does a fine job of establishing the complicated layers in the relationships between mothers, daughters and grandmothers.
The cast give strong performances too: Rabheru brings anxious innocence to her teenage daughter caught between two clashing mother figures, while Jay makes for a convincingly charismatic yet fragile mother (with a surprisingly strong singing voice) and Brindle is an equal force against her daughter’s flightiness.
The lies, subterfuge and betrayals between them are withheld for quite some time and lead to confusion at points, but the script makes up for this in its masterful characterisations. Aleena is both a devoted mother and unreliable addict. Noor is a controlling grandmother and a protector. No one is simply right or wrong, victim or aggressor; they are both flawed but their pained love is clear, and incredibly moving, to see.
At Bush theatre, London until 6 August.