Hampstead Theatre, London – until 18 June 2022
Theatre is slowly recovering from the effects of the pandemic, and many shows which were cancelled because of the first lockdown are now finally getting a staging. The latest is Satinder Chohan’s Lotus Beauty, her loving portrait of a Punjabi family-run beauty parlour in west London’s Southall, which is now being staged in the Hampstead Theatre’s Downstairs studio space. Its original director, Pooja Ghai, has — since her original recruitment — been appointed to lead Tamasha, one of the most important companies for global majority artists. But while it is always good to hear new voices, this play is not a complete success.
Set inside the Lotus Beauty salon, the drama has five female characters, spanning three generations. The boss is 50-year-old Reita, whose main ambition is to make enough money to buy a bigger house in a richer area with richer clients. She also needs to look out for Pinky, her 15-year-old daughter who is mixing with some local bad boys, while doing work experience at the salon. Like many a teen, she wants fun and fame. And sex. Pinky’s granny, the formidable Big Dhadhi (BD), is Reita’s ageing mother-in-law, who, because she owns the family home, holds the key to Reita’s success. Can Rieta succeed in persuading BD to sell the house and buy another one?
As well as this family, there is Tanwant, who is Reita’s assistant and whose ambition is to solve her immigration status and money problems by getting an eligible man, and Kamal, a young mother who is a cleaner and has problems with her own family. At the start the play, the tone is vigorously comic, with Tanwant and the street-slangy Pinky providing a lot of laughs. Very soon the central theme — what is real beauty, and how can you get it? — is introduced. Since many of the treatments, such as bleaching skin and plucking hair, are painful, a key line is Tanwant’s sardonic observation: “Beauty hurts — you get used to it.”
Amid the jokes about Miss Punjab beauty contests (no bikinis, please), there is some darker, more provocative material, such as using extract of foetus for beauty treatment, which are then balanced by humorous surprises, as when Pinky jokes about two of her class mates solving their unwanted pregnancies by having “foetus-deletus”. Central is the symbol of the lotus — a flower which really thrives in mud — and the idea that beauty grows from pain and ugliness. But while the theme of true beauty being profoundly about dropping our social masks is welcome, and here has additional insights into race and prejudice, the play meanders a bit too much in its second, more tragic half.
The problem is that Chohan is so concerned with giving each individual woman a chance to speak her truth that the pace slows down as each takes turns to delve deep into their pain. Although this gives the show a panoramic feel, it also rather disturbingly suggests that all the women are victims of their menfolk. What is missing is a more uplifting sense of female agency, as well as companionship, and a more incisive criticism of some of the clichés of representing the British Asian experience. While the playwright’s language, especially in the comic sequences, is vigorous and often delightfully hilarious, the plotting is a bit predictable and there’s a distinct feeling that too many issues are being crammed into the story.
Ghai’s production, which is designed by Rosa Maggiora, tries, not always successfully, to strike a good balance between comedy and tragedy, although it does honour the material, especially its more difficult moments: the taboo-breaking sequence about undressing an old woman’s body is breathtakingly tense. The cast is uniformly excellent, doing full justice to the linguistic range and variety of the text, from Kiran Landa’s posh English Reita to Anshula Bain’s streetsmart Pinky, with Souad Faress (BD), Zainab Hasan (Tanwant) and Ulrika Krishnamurti (Kamal) representing the mixed languages of different migrants as well as their individual characters. Lotus Beauty has many enjoyable moments, but could have been improved by sharper plotting.
This review first appeared on The Arts Desk
Lotus Beauty is at the Hampstead Theatre until 18 June.
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