Review: A brave and sharp examination of the will to survive

Nick Le Mesurier reviews Approaching Empty at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry
Approaching Empty. Picture: Helen MurrayApproaching Empty. Picture: Helen Murray
Approaching Empty. Picture: Helen Murray

In a once great industrial town in the north of England the lights in the office of a taxi firm are dim but still burning. It’s a struggle to make a living here, but these men work hard. There’s Mansha (Kammy Darweish), a decent bloke, who came from Pakistan to work in a factory building steel bridges. So did his boss and lifelong friend, Raf, (Nicholas Khan), who now owns the firm. Victims of the Thatcherite revolution that saw the big industries with their union power broken up like scrap, they’ve nevertheless brought their own ethic to the tricky business of running a business in the face of intense local competition. This is no longer a land of giants, but of small players caught up in a kind of Darwinian struggle in which only the strongest individuals survive.

Raf wants out. He’s inherited an industrial illness that will rot his lungs and kill him soon. But before he goes, he wants to take as much as he can from the company, never mind who pays. Mansha is willing to give it to him, though it takes every penny he can borrow to do it. Along with two of the drivers, Shazad (Karan Gill) and Sully (Nicholas Prasad) he scrapes together just enough to buy him out. Naturally they pay cash, partly to avoid paying tax, partly because it is a deal between equals and old-fashioned honour is at stake. Only it isn’t. Unbeknown to them the company is in debt to the hilt, and there are some very heavy people waiting to claim their part of it.

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People like Mansha and Raf came to this country in the slipstream of a dying empire. The old order collapsed and was replaced by another that was destroyed from within and became feral. Now people like Tany (Maanuv Thiara) seize their chance to fill the vacuum with a new sense of ‘community’ that is altogether darker, held together by blood loyalty and violence.

This is a brave play about people whose will to survive overcomes their lack of resources. There is some fine acting from a very experienced cast, and the writing is sharp and alive. The audience was small on the night I saw it, which is a pity, because it is a play worth seeing.