On paper this shouldn’t work. David Baddiel, who worked with Frank Skinner on the dubious 1990s TV show Fantasy Football League, has written this comedic satire about the consequences of a British-born Pakistani Muslim, Mahmud, discovering that he was adopted and his birth name is Solly Shimshillwitz. Mahmud finds his dying father in a Jewish care home but his access is barred by Matt Lucas’s devout rabbi, who insists he must demonstrate some Jewishness before he can see his father.
At the same time his son’s potential wife has a new stepfather, Arshad Al-Masri, who wants to ensure that his stepdaughter is marrying into a family of “proper” muslims.
Omid Djalili, the kind of comedian who can reduce you to laughter with the raise of an eyebrow, recently played Fagin in the stage production of Oliver, so is no stranger to the idea that Jews are not that different to other cultures originating from the same part of the world. He plays this comedy of recognition superbly alongside Richard Schiff’s American-born London cabbie, Lenny, who teaches him how to say Oy vey, a smattering of Yiddish and that Israeli Jews aren’t real Jews because they have no angst.
Israel is the central tension used in the plot. A pro-Palestinian rally where Mahmud finds himself the centre of attention is the key device for cementing Mahmud’s confusion. It seems that Mahmud can’t be Jewish unless he accepts Zionist ideology. Being a light-hearted comedy this is treated simplistically and never points to the real dilemma that many Jews face by being pressured to support a country that is racist in their name.
The key protagonists are ordinary folk who happen to have a faith background but aren’t particularly devout. Unusually, the comedy doesn’t rely on attempts to assimilate into a dominant culture – as occurs in East is East or Bend it Like Beckham – so our characters are settled in their identities. While based on stereotypes, the religious leaders also pull them apart a little. Mahmud’s imam assumes his big secret is that he’s gay and goes on to explain that despite what is formally written in Islamic scripture, it’s actually alright.
For anyone familiar with Jewish or Muslim British culture this comedy should raise a few smiles. Aside from the cartoon depiction of the villain of the piece, Al-Masri, and his supporters, the characters are painted genuinely and will do much to disrupt the standard depiction of all Muslims as terrorists and religious fundamentalists and goes to show that most of us have more that unites than divides us.
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