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Published on Saturday, 11 May 2013

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2 stars

The Nightingale (venue website)
8-12 May, 7:15pm-8:10pm
Reviewed by Darren Taffinder

 Warning: Contains strong language.
 World Premiere.
 Warning: Contains flashing lights.
 Parental Guidance. Under-17's must be accompanied by an adult.

I was really looking forward to Tunnel. It’s one of two shows at the Nightingale from local arts company Sandpit Arts (the other is Gather Ye Rosebuds), and both shows are winners of its first annual playwriting competition, where writers from around the world were asked to respond to the Arab Spring and ensuing social and political changes in the Middle East. Scripted by Mags Chalcraft, Tunnel has some beautiful moments, but in the end I felt let down by a weak story and one-dimensional characters.

After part of his tunnel caves in somewhere between Gaza and Egypt, professional smuggler and builder, Salim, finds himself trapped with 17 year-old Ammar – as well as a surfboard and a goat. As the play progresses you get a sense that things are not quite how they appear, especially as other characters seem to float in and out, including a fellow smuggler, an American reporter and a diplomat.

I really enjoyed Fanos Xenofos as Salim. His performance gets more and more desperate as his situation becomes increasingly bleaker. Some of the imagery was fantastic: the play is performed mostly in darkness, and the use of light to emphasise emotion is done very well. As it progresses, it gets increasingly surreal and there are some great flashes of dark humour.

But I did find myself questioning some of the play’s more fantastical elements. I certainly don’t mind magical realism, but the story has to maintain its own set of rules. If Salim and Ammar are trapped underground, then how do the other characters come and go? It becomes clearer as the play goes on, but in the beginning I just found it mystifying (and not in a good way).

And I found some of those additional characters excessively one-note. The clueless American reporter was annoyingly so, as was the diplomat. The relationship between Salim and Ammar just peters out, and Ammar seems to fade away altogether as the play develops; in parts, Salim doesn’t even seem all that concerned about him or feel any sort of urgency to save him. I much preferred the scenes where Salim runs into Nadia, a schoolgirl on her way back to Gaza after studying in Egypt. Played by Tanushka Marah, their scenes together had a spark I found missing throughout the rest of play.

Too much of the narrative lacked any sense of drive or purpose, and seemed to be driven by the writer rather than the characters. Salim spends much of the play wearing a wedding dress given to him by his friend Mustafa, a fellow smuggler, to keep warm. This was just one of many moments I didn’t quite buy. The whole thing needed to be more nuanced and complex. The satire just seemed too soft, the targets too easy, too Saturday Guardian.

There is a great nugget of an idea here, and this premise has real potential. Sadly, for me, it’s not quite there yet.

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