A 16-year-old boy stands in front of a kindly, idiosyncratic pedagogue and trusts in the man’s methods, despite his obvious fears.
At the teacher’s suggestion, the boy plugs in a pair of headphones, listens to some music and begins to recite out loud Margaret Atwood’s The Moment.
“The moment when, after many years of hard work and a long voyage you stand in the centre of your room…” the teenager’s tremulous voice is doing nothing for the poem. But it is doing a huge amount for him.
The boy is Musharaf Asghar, the teacher Mr Matthew Burton and when this footage was screened on Channel 4’s Educating Yorkshire in 2013, ‘Mushy’ and his story broke hearts around the world.
I doubt I need to relate the details, but just in case; Mushy was a young boy from Dewsbury, determined but often defeated by a severe stammer. Mr Burton, inspired by the movie The King’s Speech, had Mushy listen to music as a method to overcome his stammer.
It was miraculous. Mushy recited the poem and at the end of the school year the teenage boy was able to stand in front of his peers and deliver a speech, leaving everyone in tears at his performance, none more so than those who had bullied the formerly voiceless young boy.
It’s the kind of redemption story a whole phalanx of Hollywood writers would have struggled to shoehorn into a script and this was better, because it was real.
Now Mushy’s story has inspired a new theatre show which continues to give a voice to the unlikely hero.
Pravesh Kumar is the artistic director of Watford-based Rifco theatre company and it is he who has turned Mushy’s quest for a voice into a story for the stage. Along with British Asian rapper Raxstar and director Ameet Chana, the story of the boy from Dewsbury and his inspirational teacher is moving people all over again in Rifco’s current touring production Mushy: Lyrically Speaking which comes to Leeds Playhouse next week.
Playing Mushy’s mother is Medhavi Patel. While the story is about Mushy and Mr Burton, the role of Ammi, mum, is a deeply significant one not just to the story, but to what it means to have that character on stage.
“Ammi’s character sits well between traditional and contemporary, she is a strong, feisty and lovable character depicting many of the typical qualities of all Asian mothers whilst also being independent and outspoken. She has a true fighting spirit, however this is only to ensure the best future for her children is secured,” says Patel.
“It’s lovely playing Ammi, with all her strength and fight, she is still afraid to step outside due to the stigma she faces. Ammi’s character explores the difficulties women face within South Asian society when being a single mother. It is beautiful how she resonates with so many members of the audience both through perseverance in life but also her push for what she believes to be the perfect future for her children.”
Rifco is one of the vital pillars of British theatre. The company is perhaps not always appreciated for what it is doing because it is viewed through the prism of the British theatre establishment which, not to put too fine a point on it, often isn’t coming from the same place as Rifco.
Rifco was founded by Kumar almost two decades ago to appeal to a market that had not hitherto been catered for: British Asian theatregoers who wanted stories full of the same passion, colour and vibrancy that ran through their lives. Of course there was a place for difficult dramas about the British Asian community, but what about the sparkle and glamour that is entirely evident to anyone who has been to an Asian wedding?
What about the drama inherent in having Asian aunties involved in your personal life? That was what Rifco wanted to tap into and put on the stage, reflect British Asian life in all of its glorious technicolour. Mushy’s story of triumph against adversity was, therefore, the perfect source material for a Rifco piece.
When Rifco is in town it is more likely that I will bump into an ‘auntie’ from the Asian community in the theatre than at any other time. That is a powerful thing. It is also true to say that Rifco’s work appeals to a wide audience while dealing in cultural specificity. A show with rap music having a wide appeal? Doubters I refer to exhibit H for Hamilton.
“I enjoy playing the variety of characters I get to do and also the dynamic of emotion depicted in Ammi’s character,” says Patel. “The show is wonderful in so many ways, the contagious beats, rap and music coupled with fun dance numbers and a great cast and crew makes the whole experience for me a complete treat.”
The play will also speak to anyone who has struggled to find a voice, according to the actor.
“When I was younger, it took me time to find confidence when presenting myself so I over- compensated by making jokes when I became flustered. I had to learn in time to incorporate my personality into my speeches, whilst also ensuring I was prepared with the material I was required to talk about. Over time I came to realise that my playful and creative nature actually helps my delivery and keeps the audience more engaged.”
Patel’s final message is one that Mushy wants to share with the world, the real one, who now works as a motivational speaker, and the boy represented on stage: “I say be fearless,” says Patel.
At Leeds Playhouse, October 8-12. leedsplayhouse.co.uk