Lennox Theatre, January 9
James Elazzi is torn. He’s keen to share the merry absurdities he finds in Australian-Lebanese culture, and equally keen that we care about his characters and their challenges. The two are far from irreconcilable, of course, but he is still acquiring the expertise required to flick the right switches at the right moments.
Queen Fatima is closer than his 2020 play, Lady Tabouli (also given its world premiere by the National Theatre of Parramatta). This is partly because here he’s opted for making us laugh having clear primacy over making us care – and Elazzi can certainly write funny lines, although several that don’t quite work escaped editing.
Fatima (Kristelle Zibara in her professional debut) is young, single, overweight, obsessed with Britney Spears, and stuck in her parents’ Lebanese bakery. Her boyfriend Karim (Rahel Romahn) wants to break up (despite their shared passion for Britney and doughnuts), to find a wife more suitable for his status as inheritor of his father’s law firm. Fatima needs a circuit breaker, and spies an ad for a TV pageant whose lucky winner will be crowned Queen Lebanon Australia. Victory would be a finger in the eye of every detractor, and even if her mother (Neveen Hanna) and father (Johnny Nasser) are highly sceptical, her dear grandmother Gada’s shonky fortune-telling eggs her on.
Director Paige Rattray’s casting has been cunning, not only “discovering” Zibara, but casting a male, Fayssal Bazzi as Gada. He compounds the comedy and brings a curious authenticity to the eccentricity the role demands. Sheridan Harbridge also maximises Moonia, the despotic organiser of the pageant, whose character is defined by incandescently yellow fingernails and her response to Fatima getting uppity: “This is why the poor need to stay poor. They learn greed took quickly.” Hanna and Nasser are convincing, although Romahn can’t quite make the weak-kneed Karim credible.
Zibara does well realising Fatima’s hip-swinging transition from self-loathing and self-delusion to proud self-assertion. Yet one is left feeling that, in his quest for laughs, Elazzi has skated across opportunities for this play to have quite the emotional bite it could. Nonetheless the plotting is clever, and Rattray’s lively production is blessed by Renee Mulder’s set and costume designs – notably the miraculous doily frock that Fatima wears for the pageant.