As you may know, gentle reader, I am always willing to risk a punt on a comic I’ve never heard of in the hope that they might create some comedy gold. I’d never heard of Shazia Mirza before, although one look at her Wikipedia page tells me that I am out of kilter with the rest of the world – she’s done so much! I must have been living in a hole in the ground.
I had read in advance that an evening of comedy with Shazia Mirza is not necessarily a fluffy one. She has both challenging material and a challenging style. If you’re seated in the front row don’t expect her to pander to your ego, or whisper sweet nothings in your ear – although, to be fair, at the beginning of the second half she brought a little warm air heater onto the stage and pointed it into the auditorium as we’d all spent the first half in our scarves and coats – the Royal auditorium is a Victorian delight but sometimes it can be bloody freezing. That was a kind act – it didn’t actually make us any warmer, but that’s beside the point.
Apart from that, Ms Mirza harangued the two ladies in the front row for being Guardian readers (she’s no time for such wimps) and lesbians (even though I’m pretty sure they’re not). Every time a subject matter arose that related to left-wing politics or liberal thought she’d turn on the two women and blame them for the state of the nation. She also pointed out a gay couple in the second row, who looked decidedly uncomfortable at the recognition; and then at a straight couple accusing them of being the weird ones – in London where she lives, it’s lesbians and gays all the way. So, an interesting, if not entirely conventional, start to a comedy gig. It’s almost as though she’s been to see Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (we’re going in April) and has already started to play Get the Guests.
This is definitely a show of two halves. The first part consisted of the usual comic/audience badinage, with the added spice of Ms Mirza being the type who doesn’t hold back from criticising her audience if she thinks we deserve it. Much of the discussion was about Brexit and fortunately I was on the right side of the argument as far as Ms Mirza was concerned. In fact, when asked, no one dared put their hand up to confess they were a Brexiteer. To be honest, I don’t think I’d have put my hand up either, you’d probably have been subjected to a tirade of totally justified humiliation. There were times when things became a little uncomfortable – when Ms Mirza would ask the audience a question and we were reticent in replying; it didn’t help that we were a very sparse audience – it would have worked better in the relative informality of the Underground at the Derngate rather than the formal Royal theatre.
The second part (an hour and a quarter to be precise) was really where Shazia Mirza got into her stride with her subject matter. She talked about her own family background, the racism she has encountered (we all admired the intelligence of the line “Oi, Paki, why don’t you go back home to India?”) and the time she was asked to “Muslim up” her Radio 2 Pause for Thought. But her main topic of discussion is the three girls from Bethnal Green who flew out to Syria a couple of years ago to be Jihadi brides. Their motivation, their method, and the overall outcome of what they did have all been the subject of much debate and indeed much fascination. Ms Mirza has a simple hypothesis for why they did it – they were horny. They’d had a very protected and traditional (and decent) Muslim upbringing, so weren’t allowed to go out and let their hair down (so to speak). Ms Mirza thinks they probably saw one of those ISIS videos and thought to themselves, those guys are hot.
We know for a fact that two of the girls are now dead – the probability is that the same fate has met the third. Their parents, their families, their friends will never be able to get over the awfulness of what happened to them. So, as Mrs Chrisparkle asked as we were walking home, is it entirely tasteful to base a comedy show on three underage children who made a tragic misjudgement and died as a result? Good question. The answer lies in Shazia Mirza’s own approach to the show. She herself says that we’re used to exonerating children because they know not what they do, and we normally blame parents or bullies, online grooming or peer group pressure; but, in her opinion, sometimes the children are to blame. She also describes her show as part jokes, part truths – and our job as the audience is to sort out the jokes from the truths, laugh at the former and consider the latter. And, as pointed out earlier, she’s got no time for the lily-livered Guardian reading do-gooders; so to conclude, I don’t think Ms Mirza believes the show is tasteless in any way.
It’s a very interesting and thought provoking performance; in the final part she reads texts from the Koran that describe the kind of people who work against Islam, who are evil, and who are not following the word of Allah. Then there’s a video that shows the ISIS terrorists, doing precisely those things that the Koran says are wrong. It’s an extremely effective piece of theatre that damns ISIS to smithereens without actually having to say a word.
Somewhere during the second part of the show it stops being stand-up and starts being something of a lecture – and the join between the two is imperceptible. Whilst I found there was a lot to laugh at in this show, there was also something lacking on a personal level. It lacked a sense of performance joy, that indefinable something that passes from the performer to the audience that lets you know that both of you have had a great time. I didn’t sense that Ms Mirza did have a great time; maybe she sees her mission is primarily to impart her serious subject matter so that, in the end, levity is of lesser importance. Still, she did say the show was part jokes, part truths; doubtless it would have felt funnier with a larger audience. Nevertheless, it was an engrossing show and it sure gives you loads to think about. Her UK tour continues till the end of May.