Emma Rice’s bright Bollywood musical – part of World Stages London – is incredibly good-natured and energetic, to the point where it’s easy to overlook some fairly glaring faults. It’s certainly one of the most entertaining musicals around at the moment and, with its dark seam of commentary about women’s rights and the mindlessness of ‘honour’-based violence, it has more to say than most.
Soraya (played by Sophiya Haque) runs a Hindi dance school in East London, with her under-the-thumb son Kabir (Tariq Jordan). When Sita (Rebecca Grant) arrives to join the Wah! Wah! girls, fleeing her radicalised brother in Leeds, she is forced to confront her own traumatic past, and to adapt to a society that no longer seems to respect women – at least according to her own values.
It’s a classic Bollywood narrative, complete with wayward lovers, outrageous villains and huge song-and-dance set-pieces. For some the Bollywood glitz might seem facile, but within this reasonably simple central story, Tanika Gupta has made some very sharp observations about race, religion and identity. Soraya’s troubled past in India raises upsetting questions about the way girls were sometimes treated by parts of Indian society, while her own father’s brutality casts light on the hypocrisy of religiously-motivated brutality and moral weakness. Back in modern London, yobbery maintains a low-key but near-permanent presence on stage, and brief but stark glimpses of sexism and radicalisation add weight to the narrative.
Physically, the whole production shimmers with colour and the whole piece is performed with precision. Javed Sanadi’s choreography infuses the Bollywood set-pieces with drama and eye-popping spectacle, and the company is led with verve by dance captain Keeza Farhan. The main dance pieces are set to songs from classic Bollywood films (including the 2002 blockbuster Devadas), which match the narrative in tone; for audience members familiar with Bollywood it’s clear that much of the production has an almost singalong quality, while for those of us who aren’t quite as au fait it’s no less exciting.
Beyond the choreography and the colour and the spectacle, Gupta’s writing sags in places; in particular, a needless Polish character adds a note of farce that seems very much out of place within a musical whose comedy comes more from its wry observations of East London’s complex Asian community. But the performances go some way to compensate for these dramatic lapses. Japjip Haur’s Devi plays up to the classic strict Indian mum role, adding greater depth to the role by mirroring her younger self’s dancing in well-staged flashbacks. As Sita, Rebecca Grant employs a surface brashness to mask her distress at having to leave her young family behind to flee her erratic and dangerous brother (a suitably unhinged Gurpeet Singh).
Rina Fatania displays incredible energy and superb comic timing as Bindi, the ever-present housewife who acts as a narrator figure. Her brilliance, the company’s palpable enthusiasm and the sheer vivacity of Rice’s production are more than enough to counter some of the dips and mis-steps in the writing and the piece as a whole generates a genuine sense of excitement.