Brown Boys Swim review – friends stay afloat against a tide of racism

Show caption A beautiful, boyish alliance … Anish Roy and Varun Raj in Brown Boys Swim. Photograph: Geraint Lewis Edinburgh festival 2022 Brown Boys Swim review – friends stay afloat against a tide of racism Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh

Two Asian boys learn how to swim and navigate intolerance and social expectations in Karim Khan’s funny, subtle drama Anya Ryan Sun 7 Aug 2022 12.33 BST Share on Facebook

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Like lots of South Asian teenagers, Kash and Mohsen can’t swim. But with the biggest social event of their lives, Jess’s pool party, round the corner, there is only one thing to do – learn. At the poolside of their local leisure centre, the best friends bicker, banter and try their best to blend in. But Karim Khan’s play is more astute than your standard coming-of-age story. Based on real-life cases of drownings, it subtly explores the reasons why so many young Asians never learn to swim.

Set in Oxford, at a time when Islamophobia is rife, it is a fight for the Muslim boys to stay afloat. The fear from others of seeing brown bodies stings the air of the swimming pool changing rooms. At school, they’re labelled drug dealers. A trip to the shops to buy swimming trunks turns sour with the police watching their every turn. They might be split on whether to fight or ignore it, but the everyday racism they’re wading through is chronic.

Still, at the centre is a beautiful, boyish alliance – magically realised by actors Varun Raj and Anish Roy. Roy’s thoughtful and Oxford University-dreaming Mohsen is balanced by Raj’s Kash, a gloriously boastful ball of energy, even if his adolescent doubts are hidden just below. Intertwined by their shared community, culture and history, by the end they seem more like brothers than friends.

Slickly directed by John Hoggarth, the North Wall’s production brings the sense of a chlorine-stinking pool dramatically to life. The sound of splashes and indistinct chatter build a sense of fulness in the echoey tiled room. Whenever the boys are submerged below water, they’re so well choreographed that you almost forget there is no real liquid there.

The strength of Khan’s script is that it never falls into the trap of explaining itself to a white audience. The pair’s struggles with their religion, families’ expectations and own sense of identity are weaved into the writing’s fabric. Urdu words are mixed in conversation with English ones – earning secret laughs in places for those of us that are knowing. This is a fine piece of authentic storytelling.