REVIEW: Full English – Proof that Bradford has stories worth telling

Full English (Production Image) Faye Weerasinghe as Natalie

Venue: Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton

Performance Date: 09 June 2022

Reviewer: Alex Birch

Star Rating: ★★★

Inspired by the diaries of Natalie Davies (who you may know from her role as Shelley in Coronation Street, or more recently Channel 4 sitcom Hullraisers), an actress raised as part of a multiracial family in Bradford, West Yorkshire, Full English is an award-winning play exploring mixed-race identity through an unexpected lens. The Bent Architect production is currently touring the country for its second year running, finishing off its run in London on Saturday evening.

There are many artistic works that address the confusion of existing in a former metropole as the descendant of immigrants, being defined by origins that mark you as different from the white ethnic majority but also feeling a sense of alienation from your heritage. There are also an increasing number of books, films, and theatre productions about the ambiguities of being “mixed race”, Netflix’s Passing being a prominent recent example.

Full English is about both of these conflicts. It tells the real-life story of Natalie’s gran Cath (Lucy Hird), a white working-class woman who met and fell in love with a local Pakistani man shortly after he migrated to England in the post-war era. The couple had three children, at a time when social norms were much less accepting of interracial relationships. Natalie Davies played herself during the 2021 run of Full English, but was busy with other commitments this time around, instead being played by fellow Northern talent Faye Weerasinghe.

In the present day, Cath (Lucy Hird) – often referred to as “Nan” – is in a care home with dementia. It is during Natalie’s visits to her ailing grandmother that we and Natalie both learn about Cath’s colourful past, as Cath re-experiences memories from her youth. In her chatty narration, Natalie draws interesting analogies between the muddled fragments of her nan’s memories and her own sense of identity as a mixed-race English woman. Dementia and mixed-race identity are stigmatised and highly misunderstood topics and Full English tackles them with the type of humour and warmth that comes from lived experience and research.

A simple stage set-up means that all eyes are on the play’s small cast. Charming Sahal (Kamal Kaan) and bright-eyed young Cath exhibit believable chemistry. While the depiction of their doomed romance sometimes veers into the saccharine territory, efforts are made to show the complexity of their relationship, even if the results can be unflattering. Music and visuals displayed on a projector add texture; we hear reggae and see pictures of the spices on sale in multicultural areas of Bradford, the series of very 1970s council homes that nan and Sahal live in with their children and even an imagining of Sahal’s “home” in Pakistan that Cath is never allowed to visit.

Combining the partial biography of an 80-something-year-old Bradford gran and a mediation on what it means to be of dual heritage in a post-Brexit England may not sound like a winning strategy on paper, but somehow, all of Full English’s disparate elements largely “work” together. English, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, white, brown… In the end, Natalie settles on “Bradford” as the most appropriate label for her identity. The play wears its love for Natalie’s diverse city of origin on its sleeve without pretending that it’s a perfect place to live. There’s a long-standing trend in the arts of portraying “the North” as a gray, homogeneous mass of post-industrial depression and unemployment that Full English acts as a refreshing antidote to. It feels fitting that Bradford was recently announced as the winner of the UK City of Culture 2025.

Full English is proof that Bradford has stories worth telling, and the funding boost the city is set to receive will help spread them to a wider audience.

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