Early 00s pop TV was fertile ground for hyperactive performances. From the flirty cheek of TMi to the saccharine staging of CD:UK, bubblegum pop, in a new millennium, found its perfect companion in fresh-faced presenters enthusing to viewers at home wishing to escape hormone-fuelled existences.
That use of music as a means of transport to an imagined space is universal. It takes us to Afghanistan in 2004 in Waleed Akhtar’s debut play, Kabul Goes Pop: Music Television Afghanistan, directed by Anna Himali Howard in a co-production with HighTide. Based on the true story of the country’s first pop TV show, Hop (here named Vox), Akhtar’s two-hander follows his fictional twentysomething presenters as they beam the finest boybands and girl groups to their teen audience.
As the country responds to a newfound western influence after the US invasion, hosts Farook (Arian Nik) and Samia (Shala Nyx) present their frantic showfrom its kitsch set, adorned by a wall of screens and pulsing neon. Nik and Nyx’s performances are equally – and appropriately – camp: Nik has a touch of Louie Spence, and Nyx the gum-chewing defiance of Mean Girls.
Hits such as Britney Spears’ … Baby One More Time, Shape of My Heart by Backstreet Boys, and Sugababes’ Push the Button keep the initial scenes moving to a satisfyingly swift beat as Farook and Samia’s burgeoning friendship develops. Yet the Taliban are regaining influence and making life on the frontlines of innuendo-laden pop-presenting increasingly dangerous.
As the peril encroaches and the camp fades, the play, in its second half, falters. The music recedes and the drama enters an exhausting downward spiral. The script is hampered by self-consciously clunky lines – the refrain of “when it’s written, it’s written” to gloss over moments of tragedy – and an insistence on spelling out each beat of the political atmosphere. Equally, as we reach a shocking conclusion, the emotional bond between Farook and Samia feels unearned; we are told they are best friends, but we rarely feel it.
Ultimately Akhtar’s play is uneven but refreshing in its insistence on the hope shared by Afghanistan’s youth in the early 00s. It is a pop-fuelled optimism that is eventually smothered – a crushing denial of youth made all the more poignant since its echoes are still felt today.
Kabul Goes Pop: Music Television Afghanistan is at Brixton House, London, until 29 May. Then at Harlow Playhouse on 8 June; Mercury theatre, Colchester, 15-18 June; and New Wolsey theatre, Ipswich, on 20 June.