Back in 2013 the nation was moved to tears by a reality documentary series Educating Yorkshire which went on to win a National Television Award. One of the featured pupils, Musharaf Asghar (Mushy), overcame a debilitating stammer and began speaking fluently – or did he? Mushy: Lyrically Speaking is an attempt to unravel the fact from the fiction and show us what became of the young man that for a brief time inspired us all as he broke out of his own personal lockdown.
The Rifco Theatre Company production at first follows the trajectory of the already known story from the TV show. Mushy has a stammer which affects his confidence and his outlook on life. Inspirational teacher Matthew Burton, taking his cue from the film The King’s Speech, helps his student to find his voice. Fame – if not fortune – follows. I had rather expected that to be the sum total of the piece but this transpired to be only the first half. In the second act we are shown how things turn out and it is not always as rosy as the first part of the narrative (or the TV show) might have led us to believe.
Varun Raj as Mushy is onstage pretty much throughout and provides a strong central focus. The transition from struggling GCSE student to somewhat more confident young adult is very well done. Raj also delivers the rap lyrics of Raxstar with appropriate zest. Medhavi Patel as Mushy’s mother, helps to provide realistic snapshots of family life and some well-focused humour. That said, there is a tendency towards some stereotyping in the writing of this character which surprised me a little. Oliver Longstaff as Mr Burton swiftly and economically conveys the pressures that the teacher was under both at work and at home and how a sometimes spiky relationship with his former pupil finally matures into a proper friendship of equals. This being only a cast of three, Patel and Longstaff also double as everybody else in Mushy’s story and do so very successfully.
There is a tendency in the generally solid writing of Pravesh Kumar to lose dramatic focus. In the first half we are given a glimpse of Mr Burton’s home life and how his overworking is affecting his relationship with his wife. Unfortunately, this never really goes anywhere. This meandering away from the main narrative is even more pronounced in the second half which could effectively have lost twenty minutes from the running time. An attempt to widen the focus (which is a polite way of saying adding some padding) by looking at aspects of Mushy’s mother’s life was, I felt, misplaced. She too it transpires is caught in her own sort of lockdown refusing to leave the house and therefore is as trapped as her son. I have no idea if that is truth or was done for dramatic paralleling; whatever the case it detracts from the overall arc of the story – which is, or should be, about Musharaf.
The set (Eleanor Bull) is effectively simple and the backdrop of a mixture of speakers and school lockers is a nice touch; parts of this swivel round to provide other locations which are economically sketched. I have to say I find it difficult to believe that a school in 2013 was still using chalk blackboards, however, but I suppose it is theatrical shorthand for “we are now in a school”. Lighting designer Robbie Butler does a fine job at suggesting the different locations and the opening of the second half is appropriately frenzied in its attempts to recreate the feeling of a rap video.
I imagine it must be quite a difficult task for a director to keep up the pace in a piece where the central character has trouble speaking but Ameet Chana mostly succeeded. It is perhaps ironic that one of the most compelling moments came when, without dialogue, Mushy and his mother prayed together communicating with no more than looks – a salutary reminder that drama is not just about the words. Ultimately, however, the big moment in the TV series was far more moving than that in this production. Perhaps this is partly because we now know what is coming but it is also because of the effect of the construction imposed upon the original footage by the film makers. As this stage piece reveals we were all persuaded of a truth which apparently wasn’t quite as it was presented; a cautionary tale for these troubled times.