Friday, 05 December 2014


A play that reveals humanity in all its forms against the backdrop of one of India’s poorest slums

Written by Georgina Brown
georgina-brown 2805Anyone lucky enough to have visited India will know that it is a country of extremes. Appalling poverty and obscene luxury exist cheek by jowl. Behind The Beautiful Forevers, David Hare’s stage adaptation of Katherine Boo’s book of reportage, looks over the walls plastered with advertisements for everlasting floor tiles promising to be ‘Beautiful forever!’ to the shanty town of Annawadi. Lapped by a lake of sewage, skimmed by the planes on the Mumbai flight path, the slum, home to thousands, is under threat of being flattened by ruthless corporate developers.

Mercifully Rufus Norris’s vibrant production stops short of sniffing distance. Otherwise Katrina Lindsay’s unlovely set goes a long way to capture the squalor of a place where most of the inhabitants survive literally and figuratively on trash. Poor as they are, these people are one up from beggars. Some are pickers, some sorters, others weigh the tin, paper and plastic and send it off for reprocessing.

But snakes are behind even the lowest rungs of the economic ladder, sending those slowly creeping up, raising enough rupees for the odd meal, slithering down to the filth, flies and fear at the bottom of the heap. When Wall Street crashes, the price of plastic drops in India and roast rat is back on the menu for Sunil, the 12-year-old picker.

Hare has recycled rubbish into dramatic gold, grim and gripping, concentrating on the women in this community. Meera Syal’s Zehrunisa manages the most successful rubbish-sorting operation. Thusitha Jayasundera plays the jealous one-legged prostitute Fatima who sets herself on fire and accuses Zehrunisa of attempted murder. Her only way to freedom is to buy her way through the endless hoops of corrupt bureaucracy, starting with Stephanie Street’s Asha, the local Mrs ‘Go To’ who fixes things by paying bribes, and sleeps with the local policeman to fund her daughter’s education.

Meanwhile, amid the rubbish and corruption, in spite of his friend having his eyes plucked out by a rival thief, and his neighbour fleeing an arranged marriage by swallowing rat poison, Abdul, Zehrunisa’s son, clings to the belief that goodness and honesty can survive.

Norris’s impressive staging triumphantly avoids exoticising poverty, exposing instead the X-rated truth. It’s his fi rst production since it was announced that he is to take over as the National Theatre’s artistic director in April. And it bodes well: for while the setting looks way beyond little England, the acting celebrates the often overlooked talents of Britain’s vast Asian community. Norris’s expansive, inclusive vision is just what the National needs.

Until 13 April 2015 at the Olivier Theatre, London SE1: 020-7452 3000,

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