×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

London Theater Review: ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’

With:
Hiran Abeysekera, Esh Alladi, Nathalie Armin, Paul Aron, Tia-Lana Chinapyel, Vincent Ebrahim, Mariam Haque, Sartaj Garewal, Thusitha Jayasundera, Muzz Khan, Ranjit Krishnamma, Manjeet Mann, Nikita Mehta, Anjli Mohindra, Bharti Patel, Tia Palamathanan, Ronak Patani, Anneika Rose, Chook Sibtain, Gavi Singh Chera, Ashani Stevens, Stephanie Street, Meera Syal, Anjana Vasan, Assad Zaman, Shane Zaza.

Annawadi, the vast slum concealed behind Mumbai Intl. Airport, was author Katherine Boo’s home for three years. It’s doubtful that she’d recognize the place in its onstage incarnation. The crowded, makeshift, lawless swamp Boo captured in her nonfiction novel “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” looks positively idyllic in Rufus Norris’ staging: sun-soaked, colorful and even, on occasion, bedecked with fairy lights. David Hare has turned Boo’s intricate reportage into a polished, plot-driven epic that’s never anything less — or anything more — than watchable. But surely poverty this extreme, lives this precarious, should never be this palatable?

Boo’s fragmentary account of Annawadi becomes a streamlined story of three matriarchs: Zehrunisa Husain (Meera Syal), head of a family of hard-grafting rubbish pickers; Fatima (Thusitha Jayasundera), their bitter, one-legged and down-at-heel neighbor; and Annawadi’s “go-to woman,” Asha (Stephanie Street), earning her crust by crossing the right palms — and, sometimes, uncrossing her legs.

The Husains’ home improvement triggers a bitter dispute with Fatima, who sets herself alight to accuse her neighbors of incitement — still a criminal offense in India. It leaves the Husains facing life imprisonment and financial ruin, as Asha circles, attempting to reallocate their rupees. Other stories slink in and out of this framework: Sunil, a young picker who turns thief to up his earnings; Asha’s daughter Manju, sneaking to the toilet to self-educate in secret.

Popular on Variety

Essentially, Hare delivers a series of interwoven parables about capitalism. He presents a primitive, slumdog-eat-slumdog economy, in which everyone’s desperate to get ahead. Cheats and thieves take the spoils and corruption rules the roost. The honest ones, like Zehrunisa’s son Abdul (Shane Zaza), lose out at every turn. There’s no room for empathy and no time for thought.

To give Hare his dues, he’s mined a well-wrought epic out of Boo’s narrative strands. In doing so, however, he betrays her subjects — the real people, really struggling to survive. Here, real lives are Hollywood-neat, and in Hare’s Annawadi, everyone speaks David Hare — that is, pithy left-wing one-liners.

Norris, too, misses Annawadi’s energy. Despite a slick, dynamic staging, motored by the Olivier’s revolve, he presents a synthetic, superficial version of poverty, where even the street trash comes prewashed. Slum life doesn’t look at all squalid in Katrina Lindsay’s handsome design, which is increasingly dominated by construction as Mumbai concretes over Annawadi.

We’re never really forced to see ourselves in relation to this world. The airport and its Western tourists are only fleeting glimpsed, and the hoardings advertising luxury developments — those “beautiful forever” signs — don’t make their presence felt.

Instead, we get sentimentality, which is increasingly hard to resist. Annawadi’s optimistic youngsters, the reasons behind their mothers’ sacrifices, are particularly winning. Zaza’s gentle and observant Abdul, who swears off stolen goods, is well matched by Anjana Vasan’s bookish Manju and Hiran Abeysekera’s impish Sunil.

Mumbai’s matriarchs — Syal, Jayasundera and Street — all find some sympathy, though all occasionally step outside their characters to seek the odd laugh. That’s symptomatic of a show more concerned with its audience’s enjoyment than the plight of its subjects. It should be the other way around.

London Theater Review: 'Behind the Beautiful Forevers'

National Theatre, London; 1,160 seats; £35, $110 top. Opened Nov. 18, 2014. Reviewed Nov. 18, 2014. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Production: A National Theatre production in association with Scott Rudin of a play in two acts by David Hare, adapted from a book by Katherine Boo.

Creative: Adaptation by David Hare; Directed by Rufus Norris. Sets and costumes, Katrina Lindsay; lighting, Paule Constable; sound, Paul Arditti; video Jack Henry James.

Cast: Hiran Abeysekera, Esh Alladi, Nathalie Armin, Paul Aron, Tia-Lana Chinapyel, Vincent Ebrahim, Mariam Haque, Sartaj Garewal, Thusitha Jayasundera, Muzz Khan, Ranjit Krishnamma, Manjeet Mann, Nikita Mehta, Anjli Mohindra, Bharti Patel, Tia Palamathanan, Ronak Patani, Anneika Rose, Chook Sibtain, Gavi Singh Chera, Ashani Stevens, Stephanie Street, Meera Syal, Anjana Vasan, Assad Zaman, Shane Zaza.

More Legit

  • Jagged Little Pill review

    Broadway Review: 'Jagged Little Pill'

    Nearly 25 years after “Jagged Little Pill” hit the shelves of record stores, Alanis Morissette’s innovative 1995 album has arrived on Broadway under the muscular direction of Diane Paulus, who launched this galvanic production at the American Repertory Theater. The show’s supportive book by screenwriter Diablo Cody interprets Morissette’s musical idiom as a universal domestic [...]

  • Claire Warden

    Listen: Let's Talk About Sex Onstage

    The craft of intimacy direction is taking Broadway by storm — and on the latest episode of Variety’s Stagecraft, Broadway’s first intimacy director explains why, and breaks down the ways in which she’s helping to revolutionize how actors get intimate onstage. Listen to this week’s podcast below: Warden, whose credits this season include “Jagged Little [...]

  • Dan Stevens

    Mark Addy, Dan Stevens Head Broadway Cast of 'Hangmen'

    Mark Addy and Dan Stevens will appear in the Broadway premiere of Martin McDonagh’s “Hangmen.” Addy, best known for his work on “Game of Thrones” and “The Full Monty,” starred in the off-Broadway production of the black comedy. It’s the first time Stevens, beloved for his turn on “Downton Abbey,” has appeared on the Great [...]

  • Dear Evan Hansen Jordan Fisher

    Jordan Fisher Joins 'Dear Evan Hansen' in Title Role on Broadway

    Jordan Fisher will be Broadway’s next Evan Hansen, joining the cast of “Dear Evan Hansen” in the musical’s title role. Fisher, best known to theater enthusiasts for his stint in “Hamilton” and playing Mark Cohen in Fox’s “Rent: Live,” will play the role for a limited 16-week engagement starting Jan. 28. “Evan Hansen is a [...]

  • SUBJECTS] seen at the Lincoln Center

    Lincoln Center's David Geffen Hall Set for Major Renovation

    Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall is set to undergo a major renovation that will lead to the facility being closed for months-long stretches starting in 2022. Lincoln Center and the New York Philharmonic announced Monday that the overhaul will require the temporary shuttering of Geffen Hall from May 2022 through October 2022 and again from [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content