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A CurtainUp Review
A British Subject

I do allow myself hope. An expensive luxury. Our father was a brave man, but he died when he could no longer afford it.—Amjad, who clings to this "luxury" even after 18 years on death row.
A British Subjec
Nichola McAuliffe and Shiv Grewal in one of the several roles each plays in A British Subject
(Photo: Geraint Lewis)
True stories are a popular source for films and plays. For Nichola McAuliffe, the true story she's dramatized as A British Subject, is not just something she read about in a newspaper -- but a story written by her journalist husband Don MacKay, and with which they both became became passionately involved.

The central character of MacKay's story is a man named Mirza Tahir Hussain who grew up in Leeds (per the title, as a British subject) and at age 18 traveled to Pakistan to become acquainted with Pakistani relatives. For some reason he made the unfortunate choice of entering the country with his Pakistan passport. His choice of a taxi driver to take him to his relatives was equally unfortunate. It seems the driver was a thief and sexual predator. Tahir's self-defense left the taxi driver dead and the young man accused of his murder abd condemned to hang Though released after seven yers, he was reimprisoned as a result of the demand for justice brought by the taxi driver's kin.

By the time MacKay visits Tahir in a squalid Pakistan prison, the only British journalist to ever do so, it's 1988 and Tahir has spent 18 years on death row. Numerous appeals have failed and it looks as if he'll finally hang.

MacKay is appalled at Tahir's situation and convinced of his innocence. His impassioned concern is soon shared by McAuliffe. After many trials and tribulations with the British and Pakistan bureaucracy, not to mention an editor who does not share MacKay's sense of urgency to make this a front page story, Tahir is freed — and A British Subject reiterates the events leading to this 11th hour reprieve.

There's certainly plenty of drama here and Ms. McAuliffe has smartly structured her play so that it can be economically produced, with minimal scenery and a small cast playing a dozen characters — as it was at the 2009 Edinburgh Festival Fringe and is again ias part of 59E59 Theaters' Brits Off-Broadway Festival. Despite its modest resources and cast, A British Subject succeeds admirably in mining the tense situation of a life hanging in the balance in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

The multiple role playing actually comes off as more of an enhancement than a budgetary necessity. The fact that the playwright has also donned her actor's hat to play herself as well as half a dozen other characters is a decided plus. The role shifts make the complicated interplay of characters with vastly different backgrounds and points of view sharper and more interesting to watch. The same is true for the other dual role player Shiv Grewal', who also adds some much needed touches of humor, especially as Tahir's devoted brother Amjad.

Tom Cotcher is excellent as the second-rate journalist turned passionate muckraker. The only weak link in the cast is Kulvinder Ghir who portrays the title character. While he does project the man's almost otherworldl spirituality well, he unfortunately follows the whispering school of acting that makes the audience feel like eavesdroppers as they strain to hear the poorly projected words. This is particularly evident during a long monologue during MacKay's prison visit. I overheard several people who sat in the rear of this small theater which can lay claim to having no bad seats, voice complaints about missed dialogue. In fairness to Ghir, the blame for his poorly projected monologue should be shared with Hannah Eidinow, who otherwise manages to expertly evoke the various locations with the help of Mark Jonathan's and Tom Lishman's fine lighting and sound design .to offset the minimal scenery.

The script features some lovely writing and the committed performances all contribute towards its successfully dramatizing the fact based story of clashing political interests and the power of family ties and faith. However, there is a built-in loss of suspense since the audience knows all along that Tari was indeed freed. McAuliffe tries to counter this by intermingling her own Catholic faith with Tari's Islamic faith for a meditative ending. This doesn't really work since it wasn't Allah or St. Jude that saved Tari from the hangman, but his brother and MacKay's and McAuliffe's spirited perseverance.

A British Subject
Directed by Hannah Eidinow
Cast: Tom Cotcher (Don Mackay ), Kulvinder Ghir (Mirza Tahir Hussain), Shiv Grewal (Mirza Amjad Hussain, Visa official, Prison Governor, James) , Nichola McAuliffe (Taxi driver's mother, news editor, high commission woman, grandmother, gruard/trusty and herself)
Designer: Christopher Richardson
Lighting Mark Jonathan
Sound: Tom Lishman
Stage Manager: Raynelle Wright
Running Time: 75 minutes without intermission
Pleasance Theatre Trust as Part of Brits Off-Broadway, 59 E 59th St. 212/279-4200
From 12/09/09;opening 12/13/09; closing 1/03/10.
Tuesday at 7:15, Wednesday - Friday at 8:15 PM; Saturday at 2:15 PM and 8:15 PM; and Sunday at 3:15 PM and 7:15 PM.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer December 10th
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