A few years ago Kai Samra was homeless and sleeping rough in the doorway of the Soho Theatre. Last night he returned to the venue but this time he was performing onstage. As turnarounds go that must take some beating.
In his breakthrough debut Underclass Samra tells the personal story of how he went from down and out to rising star, taking in hot potatoes of class and racism. If it sounds heavy there is a lightness of touch that gets the audience onside and keeps them there.
Samra quickly explains how he grew up in Handsworth, Birmingham, where life was hardly luxurious. Money was in short supply but his older, Dostoyevsky-reading brother Ari, who Kai idolised, believed that you should follow your dream. Ari studied hard and landed a public school scholarship.
Yet just as things might have been looking good for the Samras there was domestic upheaval, with both sons eventually going their separate ways. For Kai this led to sofa surfing until he ran out of friends. At one point he resorted to asking for money on the street. In retrospect, he quips, it was not that different to stand-up, which he calls “begging with banter”.
Samra eventually found that he could express himself through comedy but then hit further hurdles. As a working class Asian his face did not always fit. Showbiz was not the meritocracy it was cracked up to be and he became disillusioned and withdrawn. So much for following his own dream.
To give more away would spoil a calling card set full of great comic sidebars. There is delicious anecdote about his cousin having a beef with Malala Yousafzai when the acclaimed activist ended up in the same Birmingham school and an evocative description of Kai’s formidable mother as Sigourney Weaver in Alien with a Brummie accent.
There are various plot twists before salvation arrives in the unlikely figure of Tommy Robinson. Samra tells the story of interviewing Robinson for Vice TV with a winning mix of rage and humour and the routine has not one but two applause-break pay-offs. It would be a perfect ending, but the best is still yet to come.
This was first performed at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2019. There are two more nights in Soho and it is also being filmed for future release, where some updating might help. Some sections, such as a brief Brexit discussion, feel past their tell-by date. And one hopes things have improved regarding Samra’s thesis about opportunity not knocking for those from diverse backgrounds.
Maybe things are finally changing, but as Underclass underlines, there is still some way to go.