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Review: LOTUS BEAUTY, Hampstead Theatre Downstairs

Mirth, misery and mehndi in a Southall beauty salon

Review: LOTUS BEAUTY, Hampstead Theatre Downstairs Review: LOTUS BEAUTY, Hampstead Theatre Downstairs There's a Desmond's vibe to the first hour of Satinder Chohan's new play, Lotus Beauty, but we're on stage not television, in Southall not Peckham, and amongst the South Asian community not the Afro-Caribbean. Of course, it's also lazy stereotyping to lump together the specificities of one group of Londoners with another (and one writer's vision with another) but, as a route into the themes and humour, it's at least as good a starting place as Goodness Gracious Me.

Reita has worked hard to make her beauty salon a success and now, with that tinge of self-righteous aspiration that often marks the self-made person, she's ready to move up to a bigger home and a more salubrious location for her preenings and pamperings. Tanwant is a hard working beautician with a ready wit, but she needs a passport and a husband as the clock is ticking. Kamal, the cleaner, is troubled, clearly dreaming of an escape and spends too much time near the railway lines where too many women have taken their lives. Big Dhadi is the wise matriarch, not entirely stuck in her ways, but missing her deceased husband and wary of Reita's ambition. Pinky is a London schoolgirl, 15 and rebellious, falling in with the wrong crowd.

There are no men in this female space, though they are a malign presence all the same, metaphorically lurking in the shadows, demanding and entitled. What these men, collectively and individually, do to the women emerges more explicitly in the second half in which much of the light comedy of the opening hour is discarded for a soapy grimness that veers too close to melodrama at times - and, for all the importance of the stories they tell, two monologues is at least one too many.

The acting is first rate. Kiran Landa, continually straightening her already immaculate uniform and enunciating her vowels just so, captures Reita's justifiable pride in her ascent to successful businesswoman and her blindness to the needs of those around her. She works particularly well with Anshula Bains, feisty and furious as her daughter, Pinky, gets the attention she craves from exactly the worst source. Souad Dhadi brings laconic humour and the sadness of age to Reita's mother-in-law, the 21st century world in many ways better for the absence of the terrifying indignities she had to go through, but in many ways worse too - such is the fate of those blessed with perspective.

Zainab Hasan has a lot of fun with Tanwant, but her quips and relentlessly conscientious attitude to her work is masking her anxiety at the life she must lead, walking on eggshells until she can get a passport. Ulrika Krishnamurti is best of the outstanding cast in the smallest part, preoccupied, tense, trapped with only one way out, an escape taken by frighteningly large numbers of women with South Asian heritage, left to suffer in silence. It's Kamal, quiet and submissive, but so lonely, who provokes the strongest emotions in the house.

Even at over two hours playing time, there's too much packed into a plot that can't quite sustain the level of detail each character enjoys. The contrast in tone before and after the interval doesn't always sit well, particularly as key tragedy reported in the first half was, to some extent, merely shrugged off. As is so often the case, there's probably a tighter, funnier, more poignant 100 minutes play inside the version we're seeing.

Director, Pooja Ghai, has recently been appointed Artistic Director of Tamasha, a company that has a fine record in bringing stories like this one to the stage. It goes without saying that more such productions will be welcome as would a bright light shone on the terrors lurking inside the increasingly smart homes in gentrifying postcodes that can shroud intolerable miseries within.

Lotus Beauty is at Hampstead Theatre until 18 June

Photo Credit: Robert Day

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