Asif Khan, the Bradford-born actor and playwright of Combustion is in the bar of the Arcola Theatre just as that afternoon’s matinee of his show is beginning. However, his acclaimed play is the last thing on his mind at the moment. He’s on babysitting duty.
His eight month old, Nu, is sprawled out on the sofa next to him while his wife sees the show. He’s screaming his head off, embodying how everyone is feeling in the baking Saturday afternoon sun.
It’s Nu’s first visit to the Arcola, where Combustion has been in a month’s residency, and where his dad’s show has played to critical acclaim, as well as two Off West End Award nominations, for Best New Play and Bast Supporting Male for Mitesh Soni.
The show speaks to the Muslim experience in the UK and centres on Shaz, a local garage mechanic who is desperately trying to keep his business running smoothly so he can save up and settle down, in the wake of a grooming scandal in the community. Racists plan to march through the city and in the combustible atmosphere his sister Samina is determined to make her voice heard, no matter the consequence.
“It speaks about a lot of issues that are in the air right now”, Khan says. “I felt as a British Muslim, I felt a bit misrepresented as an everyday Muslim. We’re constantly being told about Muslims from other media in other forms, TV news and newspapers, and I wanted to have my take.”
“It says a lot of things I want to say about being British and Muslim, and it tackles some of the misconceptions about Islam.”
Khan started out as an actor, attending the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), where he found himself amongst a diverse range of actors from across the world.
“Within my year there was people from all over the world from different backgrounds, some people that had been to Oxford or Cambridge but some straight from school. It was a real mix of different people.”
“They’re trying to make sure that every year their intake is obviously the actors they want, but also a wide range of actors from all over.”
“I loved my experience at RADA, mainly because they don’t stereotype you – I played all sorts: I played Shakespeare, 1920’s farce, Irish drug dealer – I played all sorts.”
He was inspired to go to RADA after getting into the arts at The University of Bradford, and was determined to make his voice heard now that he had graduated.
“When I left [RADA] I wanted to act, but at some point I thought in my head, if I have time I’ll write a play… there’s always that desire to tell your own stories.”
“It does help as an actor because you’re used to scripts, you’re used to seeing bad scripts – I know what works and what doesn’t. But what I had to learn more was how to structure a play.”
A lot of the piece was inspired by life growing up in Bradford; Khan could imagine the characters clearly from those in his community.
“I always start of with characters, I imagine the characters. I imagined some boys from Bradford in a mechanics garage – at first I wanted to set it entirely within the garage.”
However, in light of the recent terror attacks in the UK, a play such as Combustion arguably has a much greater role to play in changing the discourse around Islam. Khan watched the reaction of the audience closely in the week after the attack on London Bridge.
“It was a bit… It’s been an awful few weeks with the attacks and the fire that happened recently. It possibly affected audiences coming… during that week the audiences were a little low. Audiences were a little quieter than normal.”
“The people that I spoke to and that the actors spoke to always said this show needs to be heard – it covers everything that people are going through right now.”
It wasn’t just the audiences as well; the cast were understandably hyper-aware of their responsibility with a play such as this in light of recent events.
“Naturally the cast were a bit more sensitive – some of the things you’re saying in the play you kinda think ‘ok’… sometimes a show can suddenly become really charged because of a particular something that happens in life.”
However, with a tour planned for next year and his acting career still thriving alongside his playwriting, Asif Khan (and his son, who has now calmed down) has a lot to smile about.
“I can’t really complain – I’ve got the play on, I’ve got this little guy and the sun’s shining so life’s good!”