Preview: Approaching Empty, Kiln Theatre, Kilburn
PUBLISHED: 12:24 15 January 2019
© Copyright Helen Murray 2018
Ex Taxi Driver Ishy Din says working as a cabbie gave him "raw material" for his play set in a northern taxi firm
Before he tapped out his first play on his daughters’ computer, Ishy Din was a cabbie in his native Middlesborough.
His golden rule was to let the customer start any conversation.
“If they wanted to talk, I was happy to chat away. Cabs are a bit like a confessional, there are people who tell you things they wouldn’t tell anyone else because they have something on their chest and they think they are never going to see you again.
“I used to have the most private conversations, people would really unload on you.”
Din agrees his former job has supplied him with “raw material”.
A character in his debut play Snookered was a cab driver, now Aproaching Empty is set in a cab office in the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s death. Much has been made of the ex PM’s impact on the white working classes. But Din says she was an important figure for Britain’s minorities.
“Margaret Thatcher was a phenomenal person for the British Pakistani community especially in the Northern industrial towns,” he says.
“That’s why we came to England, to work in those factories, and she closed them down. That was a sea change for the Pakistani community, who were forced to find other means of sustenance. Immigrants by definition are entrepreneurial, otherwise they would still be sitting in a village in Pakistan.
“A lot of people used their pay offs to start businesses, and as in all communities there were winners and losers.”
Approaching Empty follows lifelong pals Raf and Mansha who offers to buy out his friend’s cab firm. Soon the reality of the state of the company unravels, along with their friendship. Din who is writing a trilogy of plays for Tamasha Theatre company says it sheds light on contemporary politics, including Brexit.
“I think that we are here today because of those neo-liberal economic policies that came in with Thatcher, we are seeing the results of those economic changes with Brexit, and with the gap between haves and have nots.”
But he insists that while it’s set in a specific community, its “more about class than ethnicity” with class as “a unifying force.”
“The themes are universal, family, community, friendship, The play isn’t about Asian people it’s about the working classes, who happen to be Asian, we all lost our jobs. In this particular instance it’s Raf and Mansha in a cab office, but it could just as easily be Marge and Julie in a greasy spoon in Hull.”
If Snookered dealt with the trials of four young UK-born friends “from immigrant stock,” then Approaching Empty is about their father’s midlife crisis.
“For Asian men who came to the UK in their early teens, and have spend the rest of their lives here, it’s an age to reflect on the choices they have made. Raf and Mansha are at that stage, questioning ‘did I do the right thing?’ They are conflicted and wonder it’s too late to choose a different path or philosophy of life. They both sort of wish they could go back to when they were at a crossroads and could choose another path. They make certain choices which play out with all its drama and conflict.”
Din describes himself as a “child of the 80s” who left school in 1985, only to find the industry which employed 50,000 people in his town was ‘decimated’.
“There was a very clear route for kids to join a technical apprenticeship from school and get a job for life but by the time I left, that had all gone.”
Admitting to not being a studious or focused pupil, he took a series of dead end jobs in retail, warehouses and as a double glazing salesman, before deciding he’d “rather be cabbing”.
It was buying the Din household’s first computer that changed his career path.
“I bought it for my girls but it sat in a corner and I used to resent spending all that money on it. By pure chance I heard on Radio 5 live they were looking for short stories for radio plays and thought I might as well use that machine and write a story about two young Pakistani kids from Middlesborough.”
Soon he’d been shortlisted from 1500 entries and dared to wonder: “could I be a writer?” Hailed as a vital fresh voice in theatre, he says: “I get to talk to people about what I think about politics and the human condition. That’s a privilege. Before it got co-opted by the middle-classes theatre was a people’s medium and it’s important I try to get people in who think theatre is not for them, to come and see their lives reflected back at them. Theatre can work on two levels, you can create a world that people instantly recognise, or they can learn something new about a world they might otherwise never know.”
Approaching Empty is at The Kiln until Feb 2 kilntheatre.com