Behind the Beautiful Forevers

David Hare, Based on the book by Katherine Boo
Olivier, National Theatre

Stephanie Street - Asha Waghekar, Meera Syal - Zehrunisa Husain Credit: Richard Hubert Smith
Shane Zaza - Abdul Husain, Hiran Abeysekera - Sunil Sharma Credit: Richard Hubert Smith
Navrati Festival - centre Annika Rose - Meena Chinnu, Anjana Vasan - Manju Waghekar Credit: Richard Hubert Smith

A new play by Sir David Hare is always a reason for enthusiastic anticipation. When it is directed by Rufus Norris, the National's Artistic Director designate, the artistic community will inevitably be excited.

Their chosen text on this occasion is a piece of reportage from New Yorker Magazine journalist Katherine Boo that attempts to anatomise lower class Indian life, warts and all.

In terms of portraying the wide sweep of life in the subcontinent, the stage version of Behind the Beautiful Forevers is no Midnight's Children or A Suitable Boy, although it does bring to the fore the sectarianism and brutality faced by the poor on a day-to-day basis and the skewed morality to which this leads.

While Sir David Hare works hard to portray the harsh realities of life literally lived on the streets and takes Congreve's The Way of the World as an influence, its preferred style tends towards the melodramatic.

Where Katherine Boo scores most highly is in showing comfortable Londoners that the impoverished Mumbai street-dwellers can be as class conscious and sectarian as they are.

The ragamuffin youngsters who live in the shadow of Mumbai Airport are classified by their roles in the rubbish recycling business, sorters like Shane Zaza's honest Abdul coming top of the pile over pickers and thieves.

This society portrayed comprises weak men in thrall to a gaggle of feuding, domineering matriarchs who make life hell for their families but more so their enemies.

They are represented on stage by a terrible trio. The catalyst for the central drama is a jealous, bitter woman called Fatima (or One Leg) played by Thusitha Jayasundera.

Fatima’s revenge on Abdul's mother and her next door neighbour, Meera Syal's scheming but wealthy Muslim, Zehrunisa, backfires with tragic consequences. This leads to the kind of interminable court case of the kind that hasn't been seen in this country since Dickens stopped writing.

Zehrunisa makes the mistake of allowing pride (a surprisingly common trait amongst the penniless slum dwellers) to get in the way of local custom, refusing the assistance of Stephanie Street as Asha, the slum's "go-to woman" who promises salvation, at a price.

It soon becomes apparent that turning down this worthwhile investment is a mistake in a city where the only thread joining rich and poor is dishonesty and corruption, with representatives of the police and judiciary in the vanguard of those seeking bribes.

While much of the plotting is overly-convenient, the messages underlying Behind the Beautiful Forevers are important. The creative team is keen to show the chilling effects of corruption and the global recession on the very poorest in society.

They also shine a light on the squalour in which so many around the globe live, even in today's materialistic society which they so capably mimic; and that is timely.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers receives a stylish staging and is part of the Travelex £15 Season making a visit cheaper than a night out watching a West End movie.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher