When was the last time anyone boxed someone’s ears on stage? When, for that matter, did anyone last write a comedy predicated upon two virgins happily marrying but failing to consummate their relationship because they’re smothered by family? 1963, since you ask, when Bill Naughton’s bouncy, tender-hearted “All In Good Time” hit the stage. Happily, Ayub Khan-Din, author of breakout Asian stage and screen hit “East is East,” has given Naughton’s old-fashioned confection a splendidly enjoyable new lease of life.
As productions of “Fiddler on the Roof” repeatedly prove, you don’t have to be Jewish to empathize with that show’s culturally specific retelling of age-old stories of a close-knit family. Khan-Din is playing a similar game.
As with Naughton’s greatest hit, “Alfie,” the play is set in the working-class town of Bolton in the north of England. Khan-Din sticks with the location but his update, “Rafta, Rafta,” which translates as “Slowly, Slowly,” is adroitly set amid the town’s present-day Asian population.
It’s a perfect fit. Traditional Northern parental pride and prudery about sex versus the desires of the younger generation applies perfectly to conflicts among contemporary Asian families.
The exuberant opening scene sets the tone. A boisterous wedding party, complete with bhangra dancing and bickering, is crammed into the groom’s small family home where everyone lives on top of one another.
In the kitchen, the women are dispensing tea and sympathy, not to mention the kind of advice the men don’t want to hear. The protestations of the bride’s mother (Shaheen Khan) about the behaviour of nice Asian girls is smartly contradicted by the question, “Where do you think the Kama Sutra came from?” Family friend Molly (pin-sharp Natalie Grady), the only white member of the extended family, is more direct: “Just get him to a pleading stage.”
The men, meanwhile, are dismissive of the polite solicitousness of groom Atul (Ronny Jhutti) toward his beautiful new wife Vina (Rokhsaneh Ghawam-Shahidi).
The tensions of expectation between father and son are instantly recognizable. That they prove as paradoxically resilient and funny as they do is a testament to Bollywood star Harish Patel’s magisterial perf as the exasperating, obtuse but surprisingly lovable father Eeshwar. Patel’s contradictory grace and stubbornness is magnetically watchable.
Eventually, Atul and Vina escape upstairs to their bedroom. On Tim Hatley’s richly colored, open-plan, split-level set showing the house’s four major rooms, the annoying but increasingly hilarious comings-and-goings can be savored as virtually the entire household butt in on the fraught bridal couple.
Having waited so long for their wedding night, the pressure is on. As expected, everything starts to go wrong as Vina frantically confides in her mother about her continuing virginity: “Promise you won’t tell anyone?”
As he showed in “East is East,” Khan-Din is a dab hand at juggling unusually large, tight-knit casts. He’s helped by director Nicholas Hytner’s unerring eye and ear, which allow the actors to build boisterously large characters without toppling over into stereotype.
The groom’s thoughtful, all-seeing mother rules the roost. Meera Syal’s comic flair lends her a commanding presence but just when auds think they have the measure of her, they’re caught off-guard by the depth of the backstory Khan-Din teases out right through to the unexpectedly touching climax. That’s typical of a play where the comic surface is consistently underpinned by truthful observation. The atmosphere darkens and the depth of family ties cuts surprisingly deep.
Old-fashioned though “Rafta, Rafta” may be, it’s none the worse for it. And while it more than flirts with sentimentality, its buoyant comic tone and beguiling sincerity pull it back from the brink. The National looks to have a warm-hearted hit on its hands.