Reviews West End & Central Published 20 November 2014

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

National Theatre ⋄ booking until 13th April 2015

Sprawling stories.

Tom Wicker

In many ways, this is David Hare at his most un-David Hare. Where his characters often have a tendency to all sound like, well, David Hare, this play presents a chorus of voices who aren’t stringently enlisted to make an overriding political point or blatantly subordinated as social mouthpieces. And the broadsheet-style sermonising is kept to a minimum.

But, perhaps because of the play’s real-life origins, what we also get is a sprawl of people and stories that – while refreshing for their multiplicity and for the tempering effect this has on Hare’s writing – feels cluttered and clotted on stage. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is adapted from the 2012 non-fiction book by New Yorker staff-writer Katherine Boo, who spent 2007 to 2012 interviewing the inhabitants of Annawadi – a slum near Sahar International Airport in Mumbai.

The title ‘Beautiful Forevers’ is taken from a slogan covering the boards erected to hide the slum from the sight of the ‘first-class’ citizens passing through the airport. Just as Boo’s book shapes a narrative out of the stories of the various people she has met, Hare’s play gradually coalesces around the same main ‘characters’ and their respective experiences.

Stark inequality has created a social system of pickers, sorters and sellers – people who recycle the rubbish discarded by the rich to earn a living. Annawadi as presented here is a world of bureaucratic exploitation and corruption, vicious rivalries between neighbours living in impossible conditions and a younger generation struggling to escape.

When the disabled Fatima Shaikh vengefully sets herself on fire to create trouble for haughty Zehrunisa Husain (an impressive Meera Syal), she triggers a sequence of events that takes us into neglected hospitals, brutal police cells and uncaring courtrooms – knitted together by abject poverty, hypocrisy and greed and enabled by a government courting Western money while turning a blind eye to its poorest citizens.

The huge ensemble cast excel at drawing us into this landscape, bringing to life the strained and complex relations of a makeshift community where sacrifice is a matter-of-fact part of daily life and loyalty is sometimes a luxury. They also tap into a vein of humour and resilience – with language that could turn the air blue – that makes their characters more than just victims. At its best, Hare’s writing is toughly unsentimental.

And it all looks great, with the work of set designer Katrina Lindsay, lighting director Paule Constable and sound designer Paul Arditti blending seamlessly in the realisation of a corrugated landscape littered with plastic bottles and subjected to the deafening roar of the planes that fly over us as projected silhouettes. In one striking scene, a man’s cry as he’s murdered is blended with the scream of a jet and a cascade of rubbish.

But for all of Rufus Norris’s slick direction, what is this play? That’s the problem. It’s impossible to disagree with its general point – inequality, lack of access to education and poverty are ‘bad’ – but it makes little attempt to delve into the administrative machinery responsible. We’re presented with villainous government officials, brutal police and duplicitous doctors, but these are rarely more than cardboard cut-outs.

Hare also takes us down innumerable theatrical cul-de-sacs, flashing scenes at us of gang-style murders or (bizarre) interludes in prison cells with sanctimonious visiting businessmen that see the play point in a dozen different directions (and dip into just as many genres) before abruptly changing tack. Coupled with some tonally jarring moments, this diffuseness frequently leaves the narrative feeling both too busy and also aimless.

It’s often engrossing, but what’s lacking here is a sense of structural purpose – a sharper carving of a route through the source material. Perhaps Behind the Beautiful Forevers would work better as a serialised TV drama, with its greater potential for unfolding individual stories over several weeks. After all, one of the strengths it shares with the book is the richness of the voices of the slum-dwellers. However, as a piece of theatre, it lacks focus and clarity.

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Tom Wicker

Tom is a freelance writer and editor, based in London. He has acted in the past, but the stage is undoubtedly better off without him on it. As well as regularly contributing to Exeunt and OffWestEnd.com, he reviews for Time Out, has reviewed Broadway productions for The Telegraph. He has also written for The Guardian and the online world affairs magazine openDemocracy.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers Show Info


Directed by Rufus Norris.

Written by David Hare

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

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