Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Alex & Eliza, written and performed by Umar Butt, is inspired by the true story of his grandparents, who give the play its title. Zubair (Butt) works in a corner shop in Glasgow. Raised a muslim, he obeys the strict rules of his religion in public, but secretly enjoys playing music when he’s alone and even plans to audition for an amateur production of Fame. He also strikes up an unlikely friendship with a troubled alcoholic customer (Danny Charles), who regularly calls to the shop for cigarettes and booze.
When his parents head off to Manchester to attend a muslim convention, Zubair is handed the job of picking up his grandmother, Eliza (Seweryna Dudzińska), at the airport and looking after her for a few days. Zubair is astonished to learn that this enigmatic white woman is also an accomplished musician and, after playing him some traditional tunes on a harmonium, she tells him her story: how she and her Sikh husband, Alex, endured the harsh rigours of partition in 1946, and how they were obliged to change their religions in order to survive.
There’s no doubting the sincerity of Butt’s story and this works best when we are watching the misadventures of the titular duo, particularly during their desperate attempts to flee India for Pakistan. Other scenes feel somewhat less assured (a couple of lengthy interludes between Zubair and his freewheeling friend feel like an intrusion on the more compelling central story). And, like so many true-life tales, there are elements here that really are stranger than fiction. Eliza’s introduction to the young man who will become her husband is a good case in point. As it stands, it doesn’t entirely convince. Eliza’s father seems to happily hand his daughter over to a complete stranger.
Still, there are many powerful moments throughout the play and the onstage action is augmented by the presence of musician Laura Stutter, who, under the musical direction of Ross Clark, adds evocative flourishes on guitar and keyboards, as well as interracting with the other characters. Dudzińska offers stirring vocals at key moments – she has an extraordinary voice.
At the play’s heartfelt conclusion, Butt is reduced to tears and a quick glance around the audience confirms that he’s not alone.