How a toy chicken and an invasive body search landed Kirknewton nurse Uma her first telly play

IT'S not every day you get your first professional play produced for the stage, never mind  filmed for television, but that's exactly the situation Uma Nada-Rajah has found herself in - all thanks to a toy plastic chicken.

Wednesday, 18th September 2019, 1:29 pm
Uma Nada-Rajah

Set in Edinburgh Airport and based on a true story, her play Toy Plastic Chicken is described as a violent comedic exploration of degradation and revolt.At the airport, a toy plastic chicken is suspected to be a bomb. A woman is screened for domestic radicalisation, while her interrogators decide to perform a violent and radical act of their own.Uma, 32, who works as a nurse in Kirknewton, explains the origins of the piece, "I once bought a toy plastic chicken from a market abroad. It was 2010, a few of days after a thwarted terrorist attack. Security staff at the airport I was at were pretty ‘jumped up’, if you will. Anyhow, my toy plastic chicken was deemed suspect, and one thing led to another and I was eventually strip searched.

"I missed my original flight home due to interrogation, and when I eventually arrived back to Edinburgh, I remember relaying the ordeal to friends I was having dinner with. Then, possibly due to the trauma of it all, I forgot about the incident entirely. A good few years later, the incident came back to mind. I thought about the female security guard who had searched and interrogated me. I remembered meeting her eye, knowing that she knew I was innocent, thinking that she seemed almost ashamed of herself- all dramatically quite interesting.

"Plus, with a bit of distance, I could appreciate the humour of it all - the toy chicken had to go through the scanner."

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Toy Plastic Chicken by Uma Nada-Rajah

The play, which was staged at The Traverse earlier this year as part of their A Play, A Pie and A Pint Season, will be broadcast on BBC Scotland on Sunday, 11 September at 10pm and stars Neshla Caplan, David James Kirkwood and Anna Russell-Martin. Uma admits to being excited that her work is to play to a wider audience.

"It’s pretty exciting, but also a bit terrifying. I felt really lucky to work with the director Paul Brotherston, and the cast are just electric. This is my first professional production. I’m a big fan of the Play Pie & a Pint series. It was also a great thrill to have work on at the Traverse, where I was a part of the Young Writers Programme in 2009 under Jules Horne."

Although set in Edinburgh Airport, Uma is keen to point out that the incident it is based on did not happen there. "The incident did not occur in Edinburgh Airport, I chose to transpose it home in order to explore it against a backdrop of rising undercurrents in Britain: zero-hour contracts, rising xenophobia and the controversial Prevent counter-terrorism legislation, she says.

"Prevent has been rolled out across the public-sector as a means of spotting domestic radicalisation early. Well, in theory. In practice, it puts a statutory obligation on public sector employees to report and refer anything they find suspicious. The list of indicators for domestic radicalisation in the full document include: low self-esteem, sense of isolation, migration, criticism of British foreign policy, and unmet aspirations. ‘Unmet aspirations’ is my personal favourite. Surely that ‘singles out’ every living breathing human, with the possible exception of Donald Trump?

"I’m concerned about the impact of heavily institutionalised responses on our communities. Can legislation such as Prevent actually be counter-productive to cohesive communities? But plays don’t have answers, they only pose questions."

Juggling her nursing, writing and motherhood, there's no doubt that Uma is kept busy, and she reveals she has just received some more exciting news. "I got into nursing to help support my writing habit," she reveals. "They are very different vocations, and engage different parts of the mind, which perhaps makes them complementary. Nurses hit the ground running - there’s no time in the NHS for day-dreaming or abstract thought.

"When I’m working, I cordon off a tiny wee snippet of my nursing notes to jot down ideas or snippets of dialogue for whatever I’m working on. I tear off these, usually illegible, scribbles before shredding my notes and process them on my cycle home and on my off days. I write whenever I get the chance. Nursing has taught me a lot about humanity and has improved the attention to detail in my writing, but I won’t over-romanticise the juggle. Especially with motherhood thrown into the mix, it can be tough. My martial arts practice keeps me sane, and if things get really bad, there’s always coffee, red wine and the odd paracetamol."

As for that piece of news... "Yes, I’ve just been selected as the Starter Female Political Comedy Writer in residence with the National Theatre in Scotland," she says, adding with a knowing smile, "Fortunately, not much is happening in politics these days, so the pressure is off." Toy Plastic Chicken, BBC Scotland, Sunday, 22 September, 10pm