“A beautiful exploration into motherhood, coping with loss, coping with people trying to cope with you coping with loss, and chinos…

Maariya Khalid’s “Milk Teeth’ is a beautiful exploration into motherhood, coping with loss, coping with people trying to cope with you coping with loss, and chinos. It follows Zenab, a young woman recently out of a relationship with her “sh*tty ex-boyfriend”, who takes on a doll upon the recommendation of her (hot) therapist to connect with her inner child. As a reviewer I may have been more aware of this story than a general audience going into this play, but nevertheless I would conclude that irrespective of whether we always know what’s going, we always feel it, and as we traverse the grief, love and desire that cascades through Zenab’s claustrophobic four walls, feeling it all is so much more important.

Khalid’s writing is incredibly strong, navigating the sardonic, underwhelming dryness of real conversation and personal exploration with wonderful wit and charm, whilst gradually assembly an armada of paranoia, confusion and obsession that creeps on on you throughout the narrative. By the time you get to know this world and its inhabitants, the oozing claws of its reaper have sunk deeper than you ever realised. The vulnerability of its characters – Zenab in particular, who’s unreliable perspective begins to mould reality – pervades and strikes with visceral relatability. Beyond this, though, the shining strength of Khalid’s writing is her imagery. She extols and explores even the most mundane, ugly and niche aspects of modern society, of childhood fantasy and of adult insecurity with such wonder, kindness and affection that you want to caress and treasure each composite element and squeeze them so tight that their beauty, now suddenly so apparent, can never get away from you again. It is a marvel; poetic and sublime. That said, it sometimes feels like this wondrous imagery gets away from itself and the narrative, bloating the pacing and becoming slightly indulgent. There are too many monologues for a shorter play, many of which providing insights into the thoughts of side characters and Zenab which perhaps could have been better weaved into dialogue to prevent the pace from slowing to languidness as it often does. Nevertheless, Khalid is a natural writer and perhaps more importantly an observer of the intricacies and empathies of our human world. Any literary types among you would be remiss to deprive yourselves of hearing it. 

The direction of Khalid, Iris Varla, Assistant Director Paloma Hayos (who also makes an enjoyably lethargic cameo) and Shadow Director Emily Sanderson is strong throughout. Their vision is evident, with the lighting and sound design (Rory Collins) understated but perfectly so. They manage to toe the line between naturalism and fantasia for the most part with subtlety and tact, immersing us in the immediate emotion and drama of this world without overstimulating us into fits in an effort to portray the paranoia. I will say much of the first act is too slow, the pacing of each character’s internal monologue and cautious dialogue sometimes becoming languid and repetitive. The monologues in particular could have used some physical theatre or stylistic elements – without them they feel too minimalist and bare bones. These would be fascinating conversation in real-life, but can be theatrically under-stimulating, with the audience swallowing and trying to swim through each long pause in an attempt to ascertain its individual significance which can come up empty. We don’t develop enough emotional or visceral intimacy to justify this pacing in the first act, and by the time we have, the pace has whirlwinded into its wonderful climax. That said, the portrayal of Zenab’s growing detachment from reality – as well as the self-hatred, paranoia and protectiveness that so often accompanies it – is the directorial highlight. The nightmarish, Lynchian penultimate scene is genuinely horrifying in the best way, as every character in Zenab’s world pursues, haints and goads her as she clutches ever-tighter to her baby doll – the only entity in her perception of reality that doesn’t seem to hate her. I would have liked to perhaps see even further delving into the horror connotations of this fantasia element; we the audience could probably have taken more (as the therapist asks them).

Iqra Khadiza is superbly empathetic, believable and heartfelt in her portrayal of Zenab. Her vulnerability is so vivid and visceral, her desire and need so palpable. Her tears never feel forced (except perhaps in the final scene, where they feel a little tonally discordant) and she seizes every opportunity for wit and sarcasm perfectly, savouring every line. She carries her many moments on stage with presence and gravitas, never losing our attention or compassion for a second in-between the beautiful and troubled moments in equal measure. She does lose diction at points, making certain lines hard to hear, but the essence is captured even then. Jo Price is equally magnificent as Zenab’s terrible therapist, a character who chirps in with generally useless life lessons and crosses more boundaries than the trans-Siberian express, his baritone sincerity giving substance to the character. Despite the rising anger and vitriol he exhibits as the play progresses, the portrayal can at times feel slightly one-tone, leaving us to ponder whether or not a soul might lurk beneath the conspicuous chest unearthed by one loose button too many. No definitive answer is provided, and the character gets slightly lost in the narrative as a result, caught between the projection of an ex, a manifestation of self-hatred, and a real, dreadfully unqualified counsellor. That said, across the inadvertent innuendos and patronising gazes, Price’s considered performance generally prevents the character from drifting too far into the caricature Zenab imagines him to be. Molly Bell is terrific as the Support Group Mother, expertly capturing false compassion and performative empathy with invigorating condescension and bite. Her comic timing is fantastic, delivering each punchline with equal caution and passion, whilst milking (fittingly) each bit of expositional dialogue for all its worth. Penny Cairney-Leeming does the same as Bryn, deservedly conjuring the most laughs on stage with her deadpan, believably sardonic delivery. This is sometimes over-relied upon to keep the pace up in scenes, which in moments of drama she unnecessarily slows down, but she portrays the concern and frustration of a true friend perfectly.

Overall, Milk Teeth is a must see, breaking boundaries of subject matter and style with steadfast curiosity. The neglect to mention any alternative kinds of milk beyond the standard fare (oat, soya, goat, the list goes on) is a real missed opportunity, however, and a cynical bit of false advertising as such. Do better, Khalid 🙂

By Horatio Holloway

‘milk teeth’ will show again at 19:30 in the Sir Thomas Allen Assembly Rooms Theatre on Tuesday 30th April.

Photo Credits: Rocket Theatre Company