There’s a stunning moment near the beginning of Behind the Beautiful Forevers when, below the shadow of a plane going overhead, a sea of recycling falls from above the stage. It’s followed by a frantic rush of people collecting everything they can. It’s a beautiful moment, but unfortunately one of only a handful in what is a very inconsistent evening.
There was always going to be high hopes for Behind the Beautiful Forevers – the first production to be directed by Rufus Norris at the National since the announcement of his appointment as artistic director, it follows a run of successes over the last few years. And with David Hare on writing duty, it has enough solid credentials to ensure plenty of bums on seats.
Based on the book by Katherine Boo, the play centres around the residents of the slums near to Mumbai airport and its sprouting luxury hotels. A place where recyclable metal is as good as gold, this is a two hour, 40 minute exploration of the power struggles in the slums, corruption, fraud, prostitution, suicide and theft. In essence what we have is the Eastenders of Mumbai – neighbours quarrelling, tongue in cheek mockery of authoritarian rule and a mass of characters, many of whom aren’t given the time to develop to their fullest.
That said, led by Meera Syal as Zehrunisa, the shrewd businesswoman who aspires to have a real house, the huge cast put their all into it. Thusitha Jayasundera is truly vile as Fatima, the jealous neighbour who resorts to drastic measures to destroy Zehrunisa and her family; Hiran Abeysekera is fully of energy and charm as Sunil; and Shane Zana is a real anchor to the piece, quiet and rational amongst the chaotic surroundings.
The problem is, there are just too many characters and too many subplots. While the plot surrounding Zehrunisa’s family and their fall from glory is well played, there’s too much going on elsewhere. Everything interlinks nicely, but at times a bit unnecessarily. And that makes for a tonally inconsistent evening.
That inconsistency extends beyond the plot too. While the falling rubbish is a real standout moment of the play, it comes out of nowhere, and that’s a running theme. Whether it’s a plane shadow passing over the audience, a second of rainfall, a sudden outburst of music to break scenes, a rush of people moving road signs from one of side of the stage to the other, the whole thing feels a bit stuck together. Each of the touches is nice, but they just don’t feel well placed next to the soap-opera plot.
Overall, the staging is well done though – it’s simple both in its design by Katrina Lindsay and in its use of the Olivier stage. Sandy walls, tin roofs, plastic bottles littered everywhere and a pleasant, if unexciting, use of the revolve and rigging support the story without being showy. And even the drum revolve does get put to use in the final moments for a particularly terrifying leap of faith.
My only criticism would be that, at times, it felt a tad small for the Olivier’s vast space – never more obvious than in the fights and squabbles, which felt more staged than gritty.
This is good, but not great. It’s an entertaining enough production with some cracking performances by the cast, but the direction feels clumsy and jumpy, and the plot feels overly fragmented. This really is a western interpretation of a make-shift slum, and it never manages to transport you anywhere other than your comfy seat in the Olivier auditorium.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers is currently booking until 13th April 2015. Tickets can be purchased from the National Theatre website.
And the seat…
Only my second time in the Olivier circle, I did struggle to hear as well as in the stalls. That said, you do only miss the odd word here and there. The view itself can’t be knocked though at a much cheaper price than the majority of the stalls seats, and the side view didn’t result in any lost action. This is the first row so there is a wall in front, but that doesn’t impede the view for anyone over about 5’9″.