Alankar House of Sarees, Manchester – until 24 March 2018
Guest reviewer: Daniel Shipman
After the success of Queer Contact festival and She Bangs the Drums, Contact continues to demonstrate that theatres don’t need a fixed location to thrive. Next up in the innovative ‘In the City’ season is Handlooms, a site-specific performance about a mother and son running a shop selling saris.
The show begins as the audience are ushered into Alankar, a functioning sari shop on Curry Mile which last year celebrated 40 years of business. As you enter the shop, having met at a restaurant just down the road, you are greeted by Neeta Sharma (Rani Moorthy) who guides you to the audience area and encourages you to explore the shop and touch the wide variety of saris on display. Before the action has even begun, I was sold on the stunning beauty of these garments, making it so much easier to empathise with Neeta’s son Rajesh (Ashraf Ejjbair) as he espouses the beauty of the sari.
Written by Moorthy and co-produced by her Rasa theatre company, the play deals with the changing experience of British Asians, who are increasingly turning away from the sari in favour of more Western styles of dress. On a personal level, this is creating a crisis for the Sharmas as they face the demise of their family business. They take two different approaches to saving the shop, and the resulting generational conflict between Rajesh and Neeta is given added emotional weight by the fact that you are surrounded by the sights, smells and textures of an authentic environment. This kind of connection to history could not be conjured by even the most talented set designer.
The play is performed through head-mics, enabling the actors to roam around the shop and its dressing rooms whilst still being heard. Under Alan Lane’s direction, this is used to create moments of both comedy and poignancy. An unseen fumble between Rajesh and his aunt in a dressing room is an early highlight, but this later gives way to a truly heart-wrenching conversation with an illegal immigrant who has been brought in as a backroom worker.
Whilst Handlooms attempts to cram a lot into its short running time – I’ve mentioned nothing of the mainly unspoken sub-plot around Rajesh wearing the saris himself – it is bursting with heart and this makes it an utter joy to watch.