'Baghdaddy' review — a poignant reflection on identity and immigration

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Personal experiences, or at the very least the passing-on within a family of reports of that experience, are the guiding force behind Jasmine Naziha Jones’s provocative debut play, which features the writer herself in the play’s defining, years-spanning female role. Jones plays Darlee, the Anglo-Iraqi daughter of a psychically anguished, deeply loving father (Philip Arditti), who is himself viewed across a quarter-century as the evening unfolds.

To 8-year-old Darlee, who sees things from the comparatively protected perspective of a UK-based child, her father’s home country is about food (dates and baklava) and an array of cousins she will likely never see. Her father’s Iraq, by contrast, is a place that has tragically succumbed to tumult and fear where once he and his siblings could lie on the roof of their Baghdad home and take in the shooting stars: that time belongs to a bygone innocence that no amount of vivid remembrance can renew.

The toxicity of war has spread a penetrative poison that geographical distance isn’t able to keep at bay. “The number you have dialled has had the shit bombed out of it,” we hear, as Dad attempts to make a phone call home.

Jones’s play, then, represents a poignant gesture on the part of a second-generation immigrant to understand, and to lament, the sort of life experience belonging to her father of which no one should have an acquaintanceship first-hand.

Jones’s play has a cunning structure that may well catch an audience offguard but that results in a work of two distinct and separate halves. The first act is kaleidoscopic and formally playful – a dramatic whirligig whereby the young Darlee does as best she can to process the narrative of her father’s arrival in the UK: his coming to terms with the exigencies of Lloyds pharmacy and Boots, not to mention the bad weather, and worse food, of his newly adopted land. Milli Bhatia’s staging risks overexaggeration which exists in contrast to the take-no-prisoners thesismongering to come.

At a disco, Dad does his best to groove to the music of Diana Ross but is slow to grasp the threat posed by an English thug he bumps into on the dance floor who threatens “to take me out”: a newcomer to British parlance, Dad wrongly assumes the comment to be one of kindness. Things aren’t palpably better on the home front, where a landlady exults in being able to speak French because her home happens to be located – she notes cheerily - in a cul-de-sac.

Some of these vignettes land better than others, and anyone ever newly arrived in the UK will smile at the absurdity to non-English ears of phrases like “news agent”, a locution which catches Dad unawares: might 007 have something to do with this? But the freeform facetiousness of the first half begins to grate after a while, as does a ramped-up shrillness to some of the acting that makes you wonder when the play will come to tonal and thematic rest.

Moi Tran’s set impresses throughout: an imposing staircase through which characters pop up unexpectedly and a trio of spirits abet Darlee’s burgeoning comprehension of a familial bequest whose bruises are everywhere felt. (I love the specific locales that hurtle into view as Dad’s London acquires physical definition.)

The shorter second half deepens and darkens, as Darlee grows closer in age to the present-day Jones and we come to share in the sorrow and anger that at every turn inform her play. How does one reconcile affection for a homeland that has become a locus for horror, not least when people ask how things are going with family “out there” when they as likely as not have nothing invested in the answer?

The answer comes in the form of two lengthy on-the-nose monologues – first from Darlee, then from Arditti’s achingly empathic Dad – that are as furious and straightforward as much of what has come before is impishly oblique. (The play’s rage against America in particular is keenly felt.)

Steeped in a roiling mixture of grievance and affection, the play comes movingly to a close on a straightforwardly expressed “thanks Dad” - proof positive that for all life’s lacerations, what will survive of us with any luck is love.

Baghdaddy is at the Royal Court through 17 December. Book Baghdaddy tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Noof Ousellam, Jasmine Naziha Jones, Hayat Kamille in Baghdaddy (Photo by Helen Murray)

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