Fringe First show delivers a positive knockout punch

A play about young Muslim women boxers has won a Fringe First. Theatre Correspondent Nick Ahad spoke to the Bradford director.

From left: Nayab Din, Freyaa Ali, Seherish Mahmood, Saira Tabasum, Mariam Rashid. Picture: Sophie Gerrard
From left: Nayab Din, Freyaa Ali, Seherish Mahmood, Saira Tabasum, Mariam Rashid. Picture: Sophie Gerrard

No Guts, No Heart, No Glory has, ironically, ended up being a terrible name for Evie Manning’s latest play.

The show about young Muslim women boxers from Bradford actually displays guts, heart and now glory in abundance. The play, which opened in its home city last night, is making a triumphant return to Bradford after a hugely successful run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. As director Manning says: “There are 3,000 shows in Edinburgh and only a handful get a Fringe First, so yes, we were all pretty proud about it.”

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If you were to characterise this show, you might use the analogy of the boxing movie Rocky. A triumph against the odds, an underdog coming out on top, few would have predicted how successful the show would be when it was first created in Bradford last year. Very simply, it tells the story of a group of young female Muslims who discover a talent in the boxing ring.

Manning’s Common Wealth Theatre company, of which she is a co-founder, worked with Bradford’s Theatre in the Mill to create a show that has garnered national attention, as well as a Fringe First. Ithas created such conversation, perhaps, because it takes a recognised stereotype and turns it on its head. Muslims have become one of the most discussed minorities in the British media. Unlike many of those writing about Muslims, Evie Manning knows them.

She grew up with Muslim people and, for the play, spoke to young Muslim women in order to find their authentic voice. “We thought that there was a really interesting story to tell, a different representation of Muslim women not as an oppressed stereotype or victim, but as young women doing amazing things. I was brought up in a predominantly Asian area of Bradford and I have seen so many perspectives of Asian women that just aren’t seen in the media and that’s what we were concerned with. Asian women are often invisible, unrepresented or misrepresented in the media.

“In fact, Asian young people generally, particularly since September 11, are only discussed in terms of extremism, radicalisation, forced marriages. So I wanted to do something positive, tell a positive story.”

That something positive was to take the story of Keighley boxer Ambreen Sadiq, a teenage boxing champ and Saira Tabasum, and use their stories as an inspiration. “There are strong female role models in the Asian community and we wanted to bring their stories to life. A boxer seemed a brilliant story to tell.”

Cast member Freya Ali, 17, is still on a high having returned from a sell-out run of the show in Edinburgh.

“It was a pretty cool experience, a really amazing atmosphere,” she says. “When I first heard about the show I thought it was really empowering. I was surprised when I found out that the director wasn’t Asian, but then I realised that what’s great about that is that it shows it isn’t just Asian people who are interested in this issue and in these stories.

“For me the play is about believing in yourself, about having a voice and really it’s about the potential that every person holds.”

Having played in a gym outside Edinburgh for the Festival Fringe, the show now has home advantage. The odds are on another knockout performance.

No Guts, No Heart, No Glory, September 16-21, Bradford Police & College Boxing Academy, Trinity Green Campus, Bradford College, Easby Road, BD7 1JG. 01274 233200.