Selva Rasalingam  and Nabil Elouahabi in The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes. Photograph: Judy Goldhill
Selva Rasalingam and Nabil Elouahabi in The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes. Photograph: Judy Goldhill

Seeking asylum in Britain is no laughing matter, but journalist and screenwriter Rashid Razaq’s new black comedy is perhaps an exception, using well-observed wit to take aim at the cultural superiority and political insensitivity of the West during the Iraq war.

Perhaps inspired by Fuentes himself – famous for his rotating narrators – Nicolas Kent’s direction sees the play, based on a short story by Iraqi author Hassan Blasim, jump giddily forwards and backwards in time between 2006 and 2011. Projected politicians appear on the walls but their confusing speeches, presumably intentionally, provide little context.

Saleem Husain, played movingly by former EastEnders actor Nabil Elouahabi, is a street sweeper, used to cleaning the carnage left by car bombs on the streets of Baghdad with his colleague Khaled (Selva Rasalingham). Hiding in a van full of frozen peas he makes his way over the border to England – a reassuringly “godless” place. Saleem turns over a new leaf and adopts the name of famous Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes after seeing a handsome picture in a magazine.

While the videos of Bush’s and Blair’s garbled justifications of invasion draw grim smirks of derision, Carlos’ new persona provides Fawlty Towers-style gags. We meet him reeling off the eight wives of Henry VIII he has learnt for his citizenship test while on a dirty weekend with posh totty Lydia (Caroline Langrishe).

The amenable Carlos tries to convince UKBA he is an atheist, fleeing persecution from God, only to be told: “God is not on our recognised list of dictators, Mr Husain” by a dour Scottish case worker, played by the talented Sara Bahadori.

But Carlos’ fresh new start soon begins to lose its shine. No matter how much inane trivia Carlos ingests, the memories of his homeland are as hard to erase as his stubborn Arabic accent. Carlos’ composite identity – a suave Mexican with the demeanour of an English gent – gradually erodes, leaving a Sunni Iraqi tormented by his nightmares.

Rashid Razaq’s play shows us not only the psychological damage suffered by those forced to seek asylum, but reminds us that the complexities of sectarian conflict are not reducible to tick boxes on an immigration form.

The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes is at the Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, E8 3DL until 16 August.

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