Ahir Shah: Ends at Soho Theatre | Review of the Edinburgh Comedy Award winning show
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Ahir Shah: Ends at Soho Theatre

Review of the Edinburgh Comedy Award winning show

It’s clear why Ahir Shah won the Edinburgh Comedy Award with this remarkable piece of storytelling, setting the affecting tale of his immigrant grandparents’ duty, sacrifice and achievement against broader changes in society. 

The nuanced, absorbing yarn is optimistic and uplifting – again on both a personal and a macro level – without sugar-coating the difficulties that come with being an Asian in Britain, now and in the past.

Shah was inspired to pay tribute to his forebears as he looks towards the future. He’s about to tie the knot – in just a few days, as it happens – prompting him to consider the future of his children as yet unborn as well as his family history.

His grandparents had an arranged marriage, not even having had a private conversation until their wedding night. Yet from such an inauspicious start, a tender-but-tough love story emerges in Shah’s brilliantly capable hands.

How heartbreaking for his nanaji (maternal grandfather) to leave his wife and children in India for a distant continent, with no easy way of communicating with them as he lived in frugal poverty in Bradford, then London until they squirrelled away enough savings enough to be reunited. It took years

Ends is also a paean to how much Britain has changed  in those six decades, from the time when Enoch Powell and despicable Tory election campaigners were spreading hateful division in the mainstream. Now the Prime Minister, Home Secretary, Mayor of London and Scottish First Minister are all the children of Asian immigrants, and no one much cares. A valuable lesson among the many Shah is keen to impart is to look past the short-term daily headlines that inevitably focus on the negative and look at the impressive bigger picture of progress over the decades.

Rare among left-leaning comics, Shah gives credit where it’s due for Sunak’s personal success story. ‘Politically, I’m furious,’ he says of the PM’s rise to power. ‘Racially, I’m thrilled.’ 

With Shah’s approach shunning lecturing and invective in favour of nuance and empathy, he also praises another notable and genuine achievement of the last 13 years of Conservative rule – but hilariously, it’s one the party itself is reluctant to boast about. 

Apparently, one of Sunak’s aides has seen this show, possibly inspiring parts of his party conference speech. If only Suella Braverman would take a cue from what he imparts too – she might then reflect on the remarkable achievements of multiculturalism, rather than considering it a failure.

The show’s now expanded from the Edinburgh hour, packing even more in. Shah front-loads it with the more obviously funny lines, such as the unfortunate meaning of his name in Arabic, or quips about his current kind-of-middle-class life with shelves groaning with Ottolenghi cookbooks but scant hope of home ownership. 

As the story becomes increasingly involving, the need to hit laughs recedes, but they are still there – now more effective and surprising for being set amid thoughtful, sincere moments and always hallmarked by his gift for eloquent phase-making.

Class plays its role in this story as well as race, for although Shah speaks in plummy RP, courtesy of a Cambridge education, his schooling was at an ordinary comprehensive. Along the way he learned powerful oratory skills, using every emphasis and pause to draw the audience in - knowing when to hold a moment of tension, and when to undercut it with a joke.

In previous shows that has led to shades of aloof intellectual grandstanding, even if his conviction was powerful enough to overcome resistance to that approach. But those negative elements are absent here in a heartfelt story that means so much to him and is packed full of poignancy, subtlety and context.

Underpinning it all is a latent faith in humanity, without shying away from darker moments such as the horrific massacres the British occupiers conducted in India.

Having come so far, his hope is that his children will be able to ‘go without saying’ – that their skin colour genuinely won’t ever matter.  Amid so much negativity in the world, he makes that halcyon future seem possible.

• Ahir Shah: Ends runs at Soho Theatre until Saturday, then resumes - after his wedding - from November 6 to 24. 

Review date: 17 Oct 2023
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Soho Theatre

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