The Theatreguide.London Review
Olivier Theatre Winter 2014-2015
Adapting fiction to the stage is hard enough, but adapting nonfiction is even more complex, because you have to reshape reality into characters and plot.
For at least a while David Hare is remarkably successful with this adaptation of Katherine Boo's reportage about life in Mumbai's slums. But the overlong play says most of what it has to say in the first hour and then drifts on, losing momentum as it repeats itself.
Just outside Mumbai Airport is a shantytown whose residents eke out a minimal living by scavenging rubbish and selling the recyclables for pennies. The play focusses on two matriarch-led families.
Asha (Stephanie Street) is the neighbourhood fixer, the one who, for a commission, can point you toward the right person to bribe to get out of jail or into hospital. Zehrunisa (Meera Syal) and her family are marginally better off than the others, mainly through hard graft, but can't resist showing off their comparative wealth.
Some of Zehrunisa's family run afoul of the law, and a slight hesitation in paying someone off – the key, Asha reminds her, is knowing who to bribe and when – seems to doom them.
Meanwhile, Zehrunisa's daughter and Asha's son separately develop qualms about some of the moral corner-cutting their families have been doing. But such ethics, admirable as they are, are dangerously impractical in this world, and they must find some accommodation with reality.
Rufus Norris's production is clear, colourful and fast-moving, Katrina Lindsay's designs making full use of the Olivier's technical faculties (including the once-a-decade appearance of the two-level drum).
And in addition to the two matriarchs there are strong performances by Anjana Vasan and Shane Zaza as the youngsters in a moral quandary, Thusitha Jayasundera as a jealous neighbour and Nathalie Armin as a particularly corrupt official, among others in a large cast.
But the play's information and ironies and moral outrage are all there in the first few scenes, and though the plot carries on – the question of what will become of the arrested members of Zehrunisa's family carries most of the second act – the play really just keeps saying the same things over and over, to diminishing effect.
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