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15th February 2020

Review: The Runway

Urussa Malik reviews The Runway at the Martin Harris Centre
Review: The Runway
Photo: Megan Shone.

The Runway caught my eye because of its pitch:

“Skid and Bean sit in the park, smoking fags and playing Buzzfeed quizzes. Nyla, Muslim and Mancunian, is moving in, and couldn’t feel more out of place.”

“Longlisted for the Theatre503 Playwriting Award 2018 and Alfred Bradley Bursary Award (BBC).”

Firstly, ‘Muslim and Mancunian’ were lovely assonances. Secondly, Nyla was spelt so differently to what I thought. I’ve seen it spelt Nailah, with the added vowels reflecting the Arabic background of the name. Funnily enough, this was not the only time that the character of Nyla would surprise me.

I caught the last performance of The Runway on a Friday evening, and there is a particular crowd of supporters and drama-students, which comes to no surprise.

The writer and director, Georgia Affonso, is a recent graduate of the University of Manchester, as well as of The Writing Squad.

The set is simple but detailed: a single swing-set occupies the middle, with littered bottles and takeaway boxes decorating the surrounding. A bright light shines down. Lights play an interesting role in this play.

The narrative of The Runway is simple to begin with: two friends, Skid and Bean, are both occupying themselves with the job Bean has, waitressing in her mum’s pub, and the jobs Bean is applying for. Bean is unsure of herself in social situations, freezing up and being unable to talk when she meets new people, a fact which affects Bean’s self-esteem. Skid offers her the easy option: work in her mum’s pub and stick with the local scene. They have a lovely, playful friendship, and their conversations about jobs is punctuated by what seems will be a millennial trope: the buzzfeed quiz.

Nyla appears in a dress and a shortcut scarf, which made me laugh – these scarfs are the sweetest, twee-est things worn by younger people. Think of them as the lipgloss and black mascara you start out with, and then evolving up to matte lipsticks and eyelash extensions. Nothing like the intricacy or sharpness of a scarf which is styled from a piece of fabric. She lugs a huge bag, reminscient of the incoming Year 7s, eager and fully prepared for their first time in high school.

Beyond Nyla’s appearance, she is sprightly but unsure – she asks about study spaces and is met with the question of why, it being the summer holidays. Skid assumes that she must have different aspirations (she wants to study medicine) if she’s studying in the summer, and Nyla compliments this further, mentioning her father attended boarding school in the UK. The economic status is solidified as two different ones. This tension, of different aspirations, is the crux of this play.

In the next scene, we hear Bean practising for her job interview and Nyla jogging into view – Bean freezes up, but Nyla has the perfect antidote to break the ice: promiscuity and naivety. Nyla, anxious, shows Bean a pregnancy test, worried that she is pregnant after fumbling with a boy.

Considering her youthful dress, this was a surprising turn, and I realised that, potentially, the costume director hadn’t realised the implication of dressing the character of Nyla in that particular style of scarf.

Now, with a firmly lodged idea that Nyla is not in Year 7 but more Year 11 (hopefully), we see a strange comedic moment where Bean motions for her to take the pregnancy test in the park, an image which, now being associated with Nyla, the Mancunian Muslim, elicited laughter from the audience.

This was an incredibly tense moment for me, and I was wondering whether this scene was played purely for gags. Indeed, Nyla wasn’t pregnant and, indeed, we find out that they didn’t have sex but actually just fumbled – Bean lets out a big laugh while admitting that she finds the situation funny because she is a ‘bigger virgin’ than Nyla.

This scene was full of tension, and it did not break down fully or away from it. There seemed to be a casualness with which Nyla’s sexuality was treated, which was good to see, but the casualness did not translate to Nyla’ s character. She was worried about a ‘what if’ situation, and there needed to be a greater need of translating the comedic tone into Nyla’s character and actions, not just for it to be elicited from the audience. This naivete of Nyla, as pre-mentioned, did not mire well with me when Affonso was simultaneously trying to elevate Nyla’s action into the realm of the everyday.

Indeed, my main criticism about The Runway would be that the character of Nyla acted as a foil for Bean and Skid’s friendship, which was presented as the primary focus. Nyla’s interactions with both of them, as individuals as well as a two, bolstered their narrative, and there was no sense of continuation of Nyla’s narrative.

As Bean and Skid’s friendship unravelled, due to their differing aspirations, it’s Nyla who makes Skid see sense and comfort her when a family member falls severely ill. When Bean needs to practise for an interview, it’s Nyla, drawing on her knowledge of air-travel, who helps Bean practise the etiquette of working in air-travel.

When a character becomes a foil, there’s an interesting dynamic, where they only seem interesting in how they are perceived by other characters and, by extension, the audience.

The final moments of The Runway did not include Nyla. The first moments did not include Nyla. She interrupts and broadens Skid and Bean’s horizons and provides herself worthy of being befriended.

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