In Sanaz Toossi’s Pulitzer prize-winning comedy, four students have enrolled on an immersive English language course in Karaj, Iran.

The prospect of gaining a TOFL qualification [Test of English as a Foreign Language] holds tremendous personal significance for each student. There is one rule in this classroom: no Farsi. But at what cost?

Is it possible to immerse yourself in a language without losing your identity? That’s the question that beats at the heart of Toossi’s witty and wise take on cultural assimilation.

Sanaz Toossi's Pulitzer Prize winning play runs at Kiln Theatre until July 6Sanaz Toossi's Pulitzer Prize winning play runs at Kiln Theatre until July 6 (Image: Richard Davenport)

Co produced by the RSC and the Kiln, the play is structured around the weekly lessons, language acquisition forms the content but personal loss is the focus.

The layers in Toossi's writing emerge with impressive delicacy. Characters speak English fluently when they slip [albeit in frustration, oft-times swearing] into Farsi, and in halting English with Persian accents when they are speaking English.

The linguistic shifts are crisp and funny. Director Diyan Zora ensures that tender moments are more than equally weighted. There’s a Chekhovian wistfulness to the characterisation as human detail takes priority over dramatic plotting. 

Sara Hazemi as Goli in EnglishSara Hazemi as Goli in English (Image: Richard Davenport)

The classroom set by Anisha Fields is spot on in its clinical dreariness.

Impassioned teacher Marjan [Nadia Albina] left Manchester after 9 years and now fills that void with Hugh Grant romcoms. Grandmother Roya [Lanna Joffrey] is trying to meet the demands of her son who has moved to Canada and wants her to speak English with her granddaughter, but her defiant ‘show and tell’ choice - playing Persian music - is acutely moving.

For 18-year-old Goli [Sara Hazemi], English represents make-up, international pop and ‘like the water that floats above rice cooking in a pot’ it rises and isn’t burdensome.

Competitive Elham has a place to study medicine in Australia and class heartthrob Omid [Nojan Khazai] admits he knows words like ‘windbreaker,’ because he lived in the states but is cagey about his feelings for Marjan.

Toossi side-steps direct political references and it’s frustrating so little is made of repressive attitudes towards women. But the stress on dramatizing the impossible mix of emotions bound up with wanting a better future and loving your homeland is handled with real sensitivity. 

English runs at Kiln Theatre Kilburn High Road until July 6.