Tom Preston heads to the Park Theatre for the ​world premiere of Alkaline by Stephanie Martin and directed by Sarah Meadows.

What should be a normal and pleasant evening between old friends becomes a tense exchange of opposing values and difficult truths, in a new play by Stephanie Martin.

Sophie and Nick seem to live the ideal life – a nice suburban house with a garden, well paid jobs, they’re even planning to get married. Sophie’s invited over her old school friend Sarah and new boyfriend Ali (Nitin Kundra). From the moment they arrive it’s clear how much Sophie and Sarah (Claire Cartwright) have grown apart. Their conversation is hesitant and forced, leaving the men to fill in the gaps. Then there’s the elephant in the room – Sarah has recently converted to Islam. When the subject is raised, Sophie attempts to engage with Sarah’s choice to comical effect – trying to seem knowledgeable in pointing out that Islam and Christianity are both Ibrahimovic religions (she means Abrahamic, not the footballer). But after that, Stephanie Martin nicely builds in the gradual reveal of Sophie’s conservatism, which she continuously masks with concern for Sarah’s wellbeing. Their faltering relationship is the strongest aspect of the show, and there is real payoff when we realise Sarah is fine with her newfound beliefs; Sophie is in fact projecting her worries about her own commitment to Nick. Sophie barely knows who Sarah is anymore, and it’s fascinating how the former attempts to use personal history to leverage power in the small living room.

Alkaline by Stephanie Martin. Photo: Matthew Foster

Ej Martin imbues Sophie with a quality that, despite her severe lack of social and political awareness, still makes us empathetic towards her. Alarmingly she asks Sarah not to wear her headscarf to her wedding, and struggles to comprehend the fact her friend’s school class in Maida Vale is all Muslim. Despite these omissions, her compelling, sympathetic performance keeps the show grounded. Alan Mahon as Nick doesn’t get much further than the clown of the show, providing frequent comic relief. He and Sophie butt heads over his shallow liberalism, but we don’t see enough of it to give the conflict any steam. Aside from Sarah and Sophie’s dynamic, writer Martin crowbars in the topical issues of the moment – Trump, Brexit, stubborn British imperialism, etc – which feels forced. As does the arrival of an unexpected guest (Reena Lalbihari), which happens a little too late in the running time to cause lasting upheaval.

Nonetheless Sarah Meadows directs an interesting study of ideological collisions and, in Sophie’s case, someone caught off guard and struggling outside of her comfort zone. But as Sarah finally gets a word in to explain how her religion has made her a happy and calm person, we learn that the most valuable thing we can do, as an old friend, is simply to listen.

 

★★★☆☆

Alkaline runs at the Park Theatre until 4 August. For more information and to book tickets, visit the website here.