Review: The Mother of Kamal – Upstairs At The Gatehouse

David Floyd reviews Dina Ibrahim’s ambitious tale of politics and family history set in 1940s Baghdad

Manav Chaudhuri, Dina Ibrahim, Nalân Burgess in The Mother of Kamal at Upstairs At The Gatehouse
L-R Manav Chaudhuri, Dina Ibrahim, Nalân Burgess in The Mother of Kamal – (Credit – Gary Manhine)

There’s no doubting the ambition of Dina Ibrahim’s The Mother of Kamal, which has a nine-day run Upstairs At The Gatehouse in Highgate starting on Friday.

The play, which runs for just over two hours including an interval, sees its cast of five play over 20 characters, across four countries in three continents, over a period of around 50 years. 

The acting is skilful and engaging – and the plot is never boring but it leaves you with the sense that there’s just a bit too much going on for a single production.

It begins with Um-Kamal (meaning Mother of Kamal), played by Ibrahim herself, living in 1930s Baghdad and mourning the loss of a baby son. This is followed by brief snapshots from the childhood of her other sons, Kamal (Mirdrit Zhinipotoku) and Sasson (Jojo Rosales) alongside daughter Rosette (Nalan Burgess) and their father Abu-Kamal (Manav Chaudhri). 

The plot ultimately centres on the arrest of Kamal and Jojo for alleged membership of the Community Party in 1948. 

Two teenage boys – Sasson is only 15 at the time – being taken from their home by the police for political activities is an objectively terrifying incident, which should be traumatic to watch. 

Unfortunately, the drama of this event is drowned under the sheer volume of material – which sees Chaudhuri playing a total of eight characters and Burgees taking on eleven. 

The fact that it’s possible it’s still possible to follow is a tribute to both the writer’s imagination and the acting abilities of everyone involved – but the unresolved battle between scope and depth results in some major trade-offs. 

In particular, there is not enough stage time to clearly establish why and how the boys have got involved with the Communist Party in the first place. While the boys clearly know they are doing something broadly risky, it is not clear whether their arrest is looming or totally unexpected. 

The actual arrest scene is too short to be scary. The policeman arrives and takes Kamal, who is at home, then goes off to find Sasson who is at the market. 

Following the arrest of the brothers, we see the plot defining moment where the Sasson decides to confess to party membership (condemning himself to years in prison) after Kamal tells him that he doesn’t think he’ll be able to handle life behind bars – while at the same time Um-Kamal approaches a government official to try to secure her sons’ freedom. 

This is, in theory, the pivotal sequence of events in the play, but the truncated script allows little time for anything beyond the characters saying what’s happening while shouting. 

This rushed feeling is the abiding impression of the production, exemplified by the dramatic journey of the title character. She understandably reacts with heightened emotion to extreme circumstances – one son dying as a baby, two other sons being arrested, imprisoned and ultimately leaving the country – but the sheer volume of occurrences mean that she has little space to develop a character or personality beyond that. 

By the end of a play ostensibly about her, we don’t know anything much about her other than that she is illiterate and doesn’t like really bad things happening to her family. 

Similarly, while the play is described as the story of a working-class Jewish mother in the slums of Baghdad in 1948, the family’s Jewishness is not meaningfully explored. 

That’s not to say it’s not genuinely present in the story: one son ultimately leaves Iraq for Israel to continue his political activities, the other (who goes to the US) marries the woman his parents prefer (who it’s implied is Jewish) rather than the woman he loves, and ends up with a messy divorce. But the script only has room for characters to say these things have happened rather than explore their motivations or give any details of the experience. 

Given how difficult it is to get one play to the stage, particularly if it’s about issues that audiences may not be familiar with, it would be unfair to blame Ibrahim for writing one play, when two (or potentially three) might have worked better. But it’s inescapable that The Mother of Kamal would be more successful as a work of drama if it covered a smaller amount of ground with a higher degree of focus. 

As it is, it’s an engrossing couple of hours – including some genuinely funny incidental scenes interspersed with the torrent of plot – but ultimately a play with so much to say that it ends up not saying enough. 

The Mother of Kamal is at Upstairs At The Gatehouse until January 28th.

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