A review of Maariya Khalid’s ‘milk teeth’, by Jude Battersby

Maariya Khalid’s ‘milk teeth’ is a poignant, intense, and heartbreakingly beautiful sucker-punch to the heart.  It begins with central character Zenab, a young woman fresh out of a relationship, asking the audience to take care of a plastic baby for her, and over the next hour explores in sweeping and intelligent fashion the likes of motherhood, grief, coping mechanisms, support systems, and love in all its forms. As Zenab gradually loses her hold on reality, seeking comfort in the plastic doll as if it were a real child following her ‘hot’ therapist’s advice, the audience is sucked into a whirlpool of paranoia, distortion, and confusion. The searing emotional intensity and resonance of Khalid’s script, combined with a tour-de-force performance from each cast member, fuses to create a piece of theatre that will leave you feeling long after you have left the Assembly Rooms theatre.

Khalid’s writing is exceptional. The spoken word oscillates from the mundane patterns and exchanges of everyday conversation to witty one-liners such as Zenab’s declaration of “she’s a bit crusty”, at rip-roaring speed. It is clear Khalid has a gift for observing the small and everyday interactions of people, which she tenderly layers into the script, particularly exemplified in the relationship between Zenab and Bryn, her best friend. The script encompasses sharply satirical portraits of the intensely condescending so-called ‘support group mother’ yet balances this with the highly sensitive complexity of Zenab herself. Her vulnerabilities, hopes, and desires are all exposed for the audience to bear witness, often in pain-staking and excruciating, yet wonderful, style; this is a play that has you squirming in your seat, captivated. Childhood hopes are blended with adult insecurities seamlessly. The writing frequently ascends from the pattern of everyday conversation to the poetic and the lyrical, as Zenab describes her feelings of love or the symbolism of butterflies. Although these lyrical departures can affect the pacing of the piece, they are necessary departures as they often reflect the psychological state and feelings of Zenab better than anything else could.

To support such a script is an equally strong cast, with each performance as perfectly pitched as the other. Iqra Khadiza is highly engaging and empathetic as Zenab, with her emotional intensity and sincerity never dipping once across the entirety of the play. Through Khadiza’s earnest delivery, all of the audience is transformed into her confidant, and her moments of audience interaction are as immersive as they are unsettling. Penny Cairney-Leeming as Bryn stands as a wonderful dry, witty and sarcastic counterpoint to the heart-breaking sincerity of Zenab, delivering cutting one-liners with flair. Jo Price as the ‘hot’ therapist is another standout. At the beginning he appears to be merely a source of comedy for the play, performed through excellent stylisation, subtle physicality and, of course, ‘the look.’ Nonetheless, as the play progresses, Zenab’s therapist is revealed to be just as horrible and vapid as Zenab’s other coping mechanisms. Price projects this progression perfectly, making for a highly intelligent portrayal of the awful practitioner. Lines such as “how do you take it?” are delivered with just the right level of sliminess to upset your stomach. Alongside Price is Molly Bell as the maniacally-laughing Support Group Mother, who fantastically embodies the character with her portrayal of fake sincerity and condescending platitudes – “you go queen!”. Each nasal, exaggerated, patronising line is timed to comedic perfection.

A bold directing style, led by Maariya Khalid, Iris Varla and assisted by Paloma Hoyos and Emily Sanderson, underpins the play. Certain stylistic directorial choices serve to greatly enhance the gradual deterioration of Zenab. The decision to have Zenab leave the stage and attend to a crying baby as she is speaking to her therapist adds an intriguing surrealist dynamic to the play, and reflects Zenab’s mental absence from what is in front of her. Likewise, the swirling crescendo of voices hurling vitriol at Zenab towards the end of the play is hugely unnerving and allows the audience to access Zenab’s overwhelmed and unstable mental state.

Maariya Khalid’s ‘milk teeth’ is a play that captivates and haunts. The portrait of a young woman slowly losing her grip on reality is brilliantly realised through outstanding writing, perfectly pitched cast performances, and clever directorial choices.

It is a play I cannot stop thinking about.

Picture taken from @rocket.theatre Instagram page. 

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