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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Olivier)


  Shane Zaza and Hiran Abeysekera/ Ph: Richard Hubert Smith

There is an astonishing moment in Rufus Norris’ visceral staging of Behind the Beautiful Forevers in which one’s eardrums are assaulted by the shattering roar of a jet plane about to land at Mumbai airport, followed by an almost biblical, plague-like descent of plastic bottles that have come tumbling out of the sky. But far from this unusual spillage denoting the wrath of God, it is manna from heaven for some of the citizens of Annawadi, a slum dwelling near the airport. Here there is money in detritus as “pickers” and “sorters” sift through trash disposed of by the wealthy in search of anything that might be recycled for cash.

American journalist Katherine Boo spent three years in Mumbai researching indigent communities like Annawadi and published her findings in a bestselling book, which David Hare, appropriating the book’s title and subject matter, has turned into a sprawling drama that teems with an extraordinary array of characters and incidents.

Central to the action is a 16-year-old Muslim youth called Abdul Hussain (Shane Zaza), a determined “sorter” of garbage whose skill, if you can call it that, provides a living for his canny, foul-mouthed mother Zerunisa (Meera Syal) and sickly father Karam (Vincent Ebrahim). He also aspires, despite the hopelessness of his squalid surroundings, to a better, more honest way of life.

The fulcrum on which the plot pivots is the jealousy and envy felt by the Hussains’ one-legged neighbour, Fatima (Thusitha Jayasundera), who is particularly put out by the improvements Karam and his family are in the process of making to their home. So much so that one night she immolates herself and, while near to death, blames the Hussains for setting her alight. Her accusations throw the family’s life into turmoil, landing the innocent Abdul in a detention centre. The court case that follows is riddled with governmental corruption in every department, leaving the Hussains bereft of hope and on the brink of financial ruin.

Yet all is not doom and despair and the play ends on a positive note. Hope is also provided by young Abdul’s determination to better himself, and by the aspirations of a teenager, Manju (Anjana Vasan), who, in contrast to her prostitute mother (Stephanie Street), has literary aspirations. In such an unlikely environment, she is trying to work her way through Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and the convoluted plot of Congreve’s The Way of the World.

With its occasional reliance on narration and a similarity in some respects to Mother Courage in the personas of both Abdul and Manju’s dominating mothers, Hare’s adaptation has a decidedly Brechtian feel to it. All the characters are wonderfully delineated, including those only peripherally involved in the story, such as 12-year-old Sunil (Hiram Abeysekera), a spunky “picker” who opens the play.

Norris, the National’s incumbent head honcho, directs with a seamless naturalness and fluidity, and his attention to detail is exemplary. From a cast largely unknown to me, he draws memorable performances, most noticeably from Zaza, Street, Syal, Ebrahim, Vasan and Jayasundera. You won’t find a better ensemble anywhere on the London stage than this.

Katrina Lindsay and Paule Constable’s lighting affectingly evoke the makeshift compromises among the dispossessed and down-and-outs who keep body and soul alive. But the disturbing story Boo and Hare tell is not totally without uplift. And it is this that ultimately endows the play with its heart and soul.


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