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The Dishonoured review at Arcola Theatre, London – ‘unsubtle’

Neil DSouza and Robert Mountford in The Dishoured at Arcola Theatre, London. Photo: Robert Day Neil DSouza and Robert Mountford in The Dishoured at Arcola Theatre, London. Photo: Robert Day
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Aamina Ahmad’s debut play is full of passion, righteous anger and love for Pakistan, the country in which it is set. But what could have been a layered exploration of the Pakistani intelligence services’ complex tryst with the CIA, turns into a pancake-flat espionage thriller that’s part Homeland, part soap opera.

The premise of The Dishonoured is interesting: a vainglorious war hero, Colonel Tariq, is inveigled into the secret service but soon finds himself in sticky situation when a CIA agent kills a teenage prostitute. The unbalanced relationship between the two agencies means that the culprit becomes a political pawn. Tariq, a man racked with trauma and guilt for the mission that brought him military honours, sees an opportunity to stick one to the Yanks.

Some of the dialogue, however, is eye-wateringly on-the-nose – the characters speak exclusively in subtext and exposition – there’s also a fair bit of overacting, with many scenes culminating in intense melodrama. There is little subtlety: no one quite says to Tariq “damnit man, you’re the most brilliant agent we have but you just don’t play by the rules!” but it comes close to that in places. The scenes involving a poetry-reading prostitute (yep) and Tariq’s frustrated painter wife, are hammy to the point where they wouldn’t look out of place hanging in a Spanish delicatessen.

There are times though where can see the shape of a more promising play, especially after the arrival midway through of David Michaels’s seen-it-all-before CIA agent. Tariq and the agent engage in a dangerous game of brinkmanship and there’s a real sense of drama as the fragile pact between the countries begins to crumble. In these all too fleeting moments the soul of Pakistan, it seems, is at stake.

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Intriguing debut play hamstrung by waffly plotting and on-the-nose dialogue