'English' review — this witty and moving gem of a show explores big ideas through intimate language lessons

Read our review of Sanaz Toossi's brilliant Pulitzer Prize-winning play English, now in performances at the Kiln Theatre to 29 June.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

Can you learn a new language without losing some essential part of yourself? That’s the potent question at the core of Iranian-American writer Sanaz Toossi’s richly absorbing play English, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2023. A co-production with the RSC, it’s directed with charm, vibrant wit and real heart by Diyan Zora.

We’re in a classroom in Karaj, Iran, in 2008, where four students are preparing for their upcoming TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exam. Over the course of six weeks, we see them battle with this new language, and their own internal demons, while under the tutelage of determinedly upbeat teacher Marjan.

Each has a different motive. Roya can’t meet her granddaughter until she can speak English with her – a cruel decree by her son, who emigrated to Canada and is fixated on fully assimilating. Highly strung Elham, who has failed the test five times already, desperately wants to study at an Australian medical school. Omid has a Green Card interview coming up, while aimless teenager Goli has no concrete plans, but becomes emboldened by this foreign tongue.

Cleverly, the actors use an accent to signify them awkwardly tackling this new language, and unaccented, fluent English when their characters speak in their native Farsi. It illustrates Toossi’s fascinating point that we actually become different people when we switch over; the frustrated Elham protests that she’s actually nice in Farsi, while Roya, clumsy and leaden in English, becomes sophisticated and sharp.

Their journey causes Marjan to reflect on her own life choices. She spent a decade in Manchester, loving some aspects (her fond recollection of the “swoosh” of the bus doors is endearing), but feeling like she could never be fully understood or belong there.

Yet now she’s caught between, living with a family who don’t speak English, and so only regaining that past connection via her students – but even then, her mastery of the language is beginning to decline. Perhaps that’s why she embarks on a dangerous emotional affair with exceptional student Omid, meeting up after class to watch Western romcoms.

English - LT - 1200

The small cast brilliantly grounds this drama in intimate details, all while Toossi reflects on big existential and sociological questions. Serena Manteghi is most vivid as the excruciatingly competitive, usually high-achieving Elham, who spits fury as she’s reduced to clodhopping half-sentences in English. She turns a fun word game with a ball into a white-knuckle showdown.

Lanna Joffrey conveys both Roya’s stubbornness and her genuine hurt at her son’s rejection of his heritage, including changing his name. When Marjan suggests they might want to do likewise when abroad (she was known as “Maria”), Roya snaps back: “Our mothers get to name us, not foreigners.” Shakira, of all people, sparks a similarly fraught discussion about whether you should aim to erase your accent.

Sara Hazemi, as sheltered teen Goli, visibly blossoms in this new environment. Nojan Khazai (Omid) and Nadia Albina (Marjan) build a lovely bond, connecting through humour (“This woman has enormous teeth” is his summation of Julia Roberts), but one fraught with complications.

Anisha Fields’s design places our focus on the whiteboard where Marjan has written the words “English Only”. That’s a teaching strategy, however it also makes us think about why this one language is so dominant, and what it means when you subsume other cultures into it.

Language, says Marjan early on, is vital for us communicating our needs and our wants. But it’s so much more than that, as this moving gem of a show passionately conveys.

English is at the Kiln Theatre through 29 June. Book English tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: English (Photos by Richard Davenport)

Originally published on

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