The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 18th April, 2013
Emma Rice’s production of this new play by Tanika Gupta has Kneehigh running through it like Blackpool through a stick of rock. All the familiar elements are here: the singing, the puppet children, the music, film projections… giving the story of the experiences of a range of Indian characters in Victorian London both a mythic and a contemporary feel.
This is the black-and-white days, in terms of the palette and also the politics. Abdul Karim (the charming Tony Jayawardena) arrives in England as a gift to Queen Victoria. Vicky takes to him right away, thanks to his promise to cook curries for her. He sets about to spice up her life and causes more and more of a stir in the royal household. This is similar to the film Mrs Brown, in which Vicky cosied up to her equerry, Billy Connolly. We visit their relationship at various points in the Queen’s final decades, and while Karim becomes more favoured and promoted, the scenes are all rather similar. Perhaps if Her Maj had been more diffident with him to begin with and he had had to thaw her reserve, the impact of her declaration, in Hindi, that she loves him, might be more striking.
This is also the story of Rani (Anneika Rose) who travels to England as a nanny but is promptly dismissed by her employers as soon as they dock. Her fortunes rise and fall and rise again, Cinderella in the big city; a Victorian gentlemen takes advantage of her when she impresses him with her culinary skills and throws her out, pregnant and destitute. We see Rani change from the wide-eyed naive girl to an assured and educated and accomplished woman. You can almost hear Beyonce saying “You go, girlfriend.” Her boyfriend Hari (Ray Panthaki) leaves her behind, becoming increasingly politicised thanks to his harsh treatment, before returning for a storybook reunion at the end. Again, this is a moment that should be more touching. A madras moment rather than a korma.
Rose carries most of the weight of the piece. It is through her that we visit the backstreets and underworld of Victorian London. As she learns about prejudice and the fate of ayahs, we do too. She gives a likeable performance of a fairytale heroine. As Queen Vic, Beatie Edney adopts a ‘royal’ intonation, ‘royal we’-ing all over the place and giving the notoriously not-amused monarch a surprisingly girly giggle. We get a sense of the authority of the woman and also the humanity – I just would have liked this aspect to be coaxed out of her with a little more resistance.
Lez Brotherston’s set evokes a sailing ship and there are monochromatic miniatures of London landmarks. The floorboard stage is edged by a moat, reminding us of the sea, and the island nation. After Vicky pops her royal clogs, the cast set fire to little paper boats and float them in this water as tribute. But there is also a sense of burning boats – Rani, Hari and Karim are on their way back to India, never to return. This is the kind of moment of theatrical impact Emma Rice does so very well.
Rina Fatania adds comedy as the worldly Firoza. In the second act when the piece begins to take on a slightly more documentary feel, she gives a speech about her life experiences. Vincent Ebrahim has dignity as the prospective MP who faces Tory opposition; he, when elected, makes a speech describing the true conditions faced by people ‘liberated’ by colonisation. It’s all well-presented and well-performed but it’s all a bit soft-edged. There are lessons to be learned from the past and parallels with the treatment of immigrant workers of today. Wrapped up in this, admittedly enjoyable, presentation, the story is warming but lacking in bite.
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