Nadia P Manzoor, you are brilliant. Manzoor’s one-woman show, Burq Off, about being a rebellious British Pakistani woman will anger a few, annoy some, entertain many. She is writer and performer, and is superb in both capacities. It’s a no-holds-barred, truth-telling, funny, touching, dramatic, lacerating look at aspects of British and Pakistani culture, gender discrimination, religious rigour, patriarchal hypocrisy, migrant mash-up, teenage hormones, reflexive racism, sex, love and prejudice, Manzoor’s two-hour journey starts with a five-year-old’s longing to be an astronaut and her father’s put down (“Who will look after your children?”), and takes in childish sexual awakening, a trip to Mecca, family visitors from the homeland, escape to Manchester University, a bar, a beach, a hospital, drunkenness and death, – “one woman, 21 characters, a burqa, a bikini”. Her mimicry – of her brother, mother, father, cousins, a malvi, fellow students, a passer-by, her schoolfriend’s mother – is understated but devastatingly spot-on; her movement is similarly pinpointed, whether it’s a burqa or a Bollywood body-pop or a hand-on-the-knee cinema nbewilderment. She can nail her twin brother’s absurd jealous pouting and her mother’s feeble attempts to soften her father’s knee-jerk discrimination, her words constantly hit the bull’s-eye (provoking spontaneous, apparently heartfelt applause when, for example, she skewers attitudes that conflate ‘vagina’ with ‘shame’), but her observation is grounded in truth and love, not cruelty and revenge. With the deceptively simple set, almost unnoticed manipulation of a handful of props and the flowing changes of pace and intensity necessary in a one-person show, this is a lesson in how to hold the stage. But it’s far more than that.
Burq Off, despite the grimacingly punning title, has serious points to make about migration, Islam, Pakistani culture, individual freedom, family commitments, gender discrimination. It says nothing startlingly original, and to an extent plays on stereotypes. But it examines real and important issues and clearly has touched a nerve because the show is virtually sold out. On the evening I watched the piece, there were no burqas in the audience, only four headscarves, far more women than men, and many South Asians. When the lights went up, the woman next to me said admiringly, “She is courageous.” And when I left the theatre, I heard Manzoor’s father, standing in the middle of an admiring throng, say, “Yes, I used to be like that but I have changed…” • Burq Off is at the Cockpit, Gateforth Street, NW8, until 14 September. Info: 7258 2925/