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Approaching Empty Review by David Whetstone

Ishy Din’s play tells of two old friends and their world of work whose focal point is a scuffed taxi office where emotions run high.

Feast your eyes on the ill-matched furniture, the mighty road map pasted to the wall, the dart board, the coffee machine. Very old school.

From what we know of the playwright – ex-cabbie on Teesside – this is Middlesbrough but it could be any place in the UK that the digital revolution has largely passed by. Apps have no role here.

At the desk is Mansha, manager of the firm with its 30-strong fleet. He takes the calls and matches cab to customer while Shazad disinterestedly fiddles with his mobile phone.

Mansha, played by Kammy Darweish, is 55, a figure steeped in routine and seemingly comfortable in his skin. Shazad, 22, played by Karan Gill, is the university student son of the firm’s owner, Kammy’s pal Raf.

Brought to life by the tall and angular Nicholas Khan, Raf is chalk to Kammy’s cheese. You wonder how they ever got along.

Raf is inclined towards expletive-laden anger, first directed at his son: “Learn how to ******* work.” Kammy is given to sitting and pondering while coffee-fuelled Raf paces and smokes.

And from the TV – not your fancy flat screen, of course – comes news of Margaret Thatcher’s death, dating events at 2013.

“She has a lot to answer for, that woman,” says Mansha in his undemonstrative way. But Raf’s unmoved by the demise of the former ‘Iron Lady’ of British politics.

Approaching Empty is set in a post-Thatcher landscape where guaranteed mass employment died with the factories – like the one where Mansha used to help build bridges, taking pride as well as pay from his work.

Raf, with his entrepreneurial spark, set up the cab firm Mansha runs. All has been well, or at least OK, for years - but new forces of disruption are gathering.

A more go-ahead cab firm is muscling in on the territory and fares are dwindling. Raf, health failing, is looking to cash in on his asset and the new boys are interested – so he says.

Mansha and son-in-law Sully (Nicholas Prasad) see an opportunity. If they can match their supposed rival’s offer, they will be the bosses and able to put Mansha’s good ideas into practice.

Does it go smoothly? Does it heck! The crackling stresses and strains of this workplace drama are reminiscent in some ways of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, with its pressured real estate salesmen.

The prose doesn’t reach those heights but the story has the same sickly plausibility and it sucks you in. You want Mansha to do well but despair of his naivety. Is Raf really the friend he takes him to be?

A highlight comes in the form of Rina Fatania’s fearless and foul-mouthed Sameena, the new cabbie whose desire to earn an honest crust is threatened by her shady past and equally shady brother, Tany (Maanuv Thiara).

Sameena is a tough cookie and one source of the black comedy which makes Ishy Din’s play so entertaining. In revealing that for none of these characters is there a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, I’m probably not giving anything away.

Life’s generally not like that – and real life, with all its setbacks, conflicts and disappointments, is the stuff that fuelled Approaching Empty.

The play, directed by Pooja Ghai, is a co-production between Live Theatre, Tamasha Theatre Company and Kiln Theatre in Kilburn. It runs at Live Theatre until Saturday 23 February. www.live.org.uk or (0191) 232 1232.

David Whetstone

To support independent theatre criticism, and to champion the arts and culture in the region, Live Theatre invites independent critics to review our work. The content of this review is independent from the views of Live Theatre and Live Theatre employees.

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