Miss Meena and the Masala Queens
Rifco and Watford Palace Theatre
Watford Palace Theatre
Miss Meena (Abdul to the family who rejected him) runs an Asian gay club in Birmingham.
For years it has been a haven for the LGBT community and especially for drag queens, who have felt safe being themselves there, but in the years since his lover died Meena has lost her sparkle and the club gone downhill. Now his more commercially minded associate and ”sister” Munni plots with her town councillor boyfriend to take it over.
When teenage Shaan turns up with drag dreams and fleeing family, Meena is supportive and with the help of a rapidly improving amateur drag duo, Preetho and Pinky, Shaan is trained for a spot in the drag show.
Writer Harvey Virdi and director Pravesh Kumar aim the play at a core South Asian audience for whom they may be “talking about things they should not talk about” by showing a human story behind the glittering saris and cosmetics. They want to combat prejudice, make a plea for people to be themselves in a society where fitting family expectations may make that impossible.
This latest Rifco production does so through a very simplified story that is as clichéd as the old Bollywood movies to whose numbers these drag queens lip sync. The conflict between traditional values and modern freedoms is hardly new ground but in a world where coming out is difficult (and homosexual acts are illegal in India remember) the use of a familiar format may be most effective however old hat it might seem to other audiences.
It is hardly believable that Miss Meena could run an establishment as large as Libby Watson’s warehouse-looking set suggests it must be and live in the premises. Even the biggest Gaysian discos tend to be one night a week or a month affairs, not ongoing operations, and we see nothing to suggest otherwise. There is not much depth to the characterisations either. They rely on the actors to create personalities, but, following a pattern of self-send-up without crossing into offensive caricature, they are adept at getting the whole audience laughing.
One way in which that balance is kept more easily is by making Preetho and Pinky drag amateurs: to start with their act is terrible. Jamie Zubairi as the villain, self-styled bitch Munni, is so rude to them they get the audience on their side from the moment they shed their builders’ yellow visibility clothing to reveal the glamour beneath it. After that, everything they do seems an achievement. Harvey Dhadda (Preetho) and Vedi Roy (a chubby camp Pinky) at first fake no skills to allow them then to flower into accomplishment.
There’s an hilarious sequence as Nicholas Prasad’s Shaan precariously parades in high heels trying to copy the style of each of the others and more fun is had when he essays performing as western pop idols instead of Bollywood film stars.
Raj Ghatak as Miss Meena has the difficult task of suggesting the person the others can rely on while himself feeling lacklustre, though winning warmth from the audience by his feeling for others. Both Munni’s boyfriend (Ali Ariaie) and Preetho are already trapped in arranged marriages and, when under pressure from his brother (Ariaie again) a guilt-ridden Meena / Abdul agrees to marry an unknown bride in Pakistan, it seems no one can oppose tradition but that doesn’t stop a sequin-spangled finale to “I Am What I Am”.
Intriguingly, it was the many Asian women in the audience who were clapping along to the numbers and cheering the “girls” standing up for themselves. For them, these Masala Queens seem to making a statement about women’s rights as well as those of their transvestite sisters.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton