Wednesday, November 19, 2014


On reflection it hasn't been a year for memorable new plays but we saw a preview last week of David Hare's new play BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS and it is as entertaining as the subject is fascinating.

Hare's play is based on the non-fiction bestseller of the same name by journalist Katherine Boo which she wrote after spending three years in the Indian slum of Annawadi which sprung up next to Mumbai airport.  Her kaleidoscopic view of the community that exists there is an unlikely choice for a play but it's wide-ranging cast of characters more than fill out the Olivier stage and Hare finds unlikely heroes and heroines within it's occupants.

Hare spotlights several occupants of Annawadi who struggle every day to survive the hardships of life within the slum, mainly by back-breaking work shifting through the piles of Mumbai's rubbish for any material that can be sold on especially plastics or metal.  Odd that the west is forever banging the drum for green economies and recycling when in Annawadi it's a way to make money, not to lead a more ethical life!

We follow the lives of several young inhabitants: Sunil Sharma, a bright and resourceful 'picker' who dreams of a better life beyond the billboards - put up in an attempt to hide the slum from the visitors to the airport and hotels - as well as Manju Waghekar, a young girl wrestling with the need to study MRS DALLOWAY at school but wanting to be the first Annawadi college graduate.

We also meet Manju's mother Asha, the hard-hearted woman who is the go-to woman for financial help for the dwellers but who is feared by them too.  Another powerful woman in the slum is Zehrunisa who has grown rich off the recycled goods found by the 'pickers', the most successful of whom is her son Abdul.

Zehrunisa and her Muslim family are particularly despised by their crippled neighbour Fatima.  When they argue fiercely over the shared wall between their shacks, Fatima sets her own house on fire and is badly burned but before she dies, she accuses Zehrunisa's sickly husband, studious daughter and Abdul of having beat her and driven her to do the deed.

Zehrunisa is suddenly faced with the bribe demands of both the corrupt police force and court system and finds the family's much-cherished fortune dwindling to nothing.  With all her resourcefulness even she is no match for the real forces that govern the lives of the slum dwellers.

There were certain longueurs in the play which hopefully will be ironed out when the company have established a rhythm to the scenes, but apart from these and a bit of confusion at the start while sorting out the many characters and their relationships to each other, I enjoyed the play very much.  The inhabitants of Annawadi are hardly Hare's usual characters but that it makes it all the more interesting and you can feel his sense of enjoyment in the tense scenes dealing with the police and courts.

It was only when the company took their bow that it occurred to me how many fine roles there are for actresses in the play.  David Hare has given us many fine female roles down the years and here it is definitely a case where the women have the upper hand.

Soon-to-be NT Artistic Director Rufus Norris shows his mettle by making the world of the slum a palpable environment and elicits fine performances from all his cast.  Very early on, there is a scene of savage violence that seemingly comes out of nowhere, the resultant uneasy atmosphere is well developed by Norris so the audience is never really allowed to relax, he gives us a world where danger and downfall can happen at any moment.

The design team of Katrina Lindsay and Paule Constable combine to suggest the fetid, dusty world of Annawadi very well - there is one coup-de-theatre early on which immediately places you within that world when an avalanche of rubbish is dumped onto the stage - seeing it from the front row of the circle was damn impressive!

The exemplary cast work as a real ensemble and many have a chance to shine in individual roles, none more so than Meera Syal as the slum-Mother Courage Zehrunisa although I suspect Hare has made her a touch more sympathetic in his version of her life.  From her imperious bossiness at the start to her later humble approach to life's vicissitudes, Syal made an indelible impression. 

Equally impressive performances came from Stephanie Street as the hard-hearted Asha, Anjana Vasan as her more caring daughter Manju, Nathalie Armin as the corrupt court official Poornima Paikrao and Thusitha Jayasundera, excelling as both the pathetic Fatima and the poised but icy Judge Chauhan.


There were also fine performances from Hiran Abeysekera as Sunil, always optimistic in the face of despair, Vincent Ebrahim as Zehrunisa's husband Karam and Shane Zaza as their ambitious son Abdul.

I recommend the play highly, it plays until April of next year in repertory and will also be shown live in cinemas in March as part of NT Live.

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