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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Golgotha
Tristan Bates Theatre   Autumn 2012

Two tales in two acts told by immigrants to our shores from the far-off Indian subcontinent. Throwing up intriguing and often unexpected insights into the immigrant experience, their aim is to challenge our assumptions about patchwork Britain. But script problems in each half limit the play's effectiveness.

Our first encounter is with an Indian prostitute in Ripper-era 19th century London. After outlining the adventures that brought her to the country and left her on the streets, she describes her profession and clients. As an 'exotic' beauty much in demand though garbed in confining bodices and bustles, she becomes streetwise, bears children by some of her clients and receives the gift of learning from others. 

She remains an outsider in a world of outsiders, and so, while her tale starts like a pulp potboiler, it shifts gears to allow us a fresh perspective on the ups and more frequent downs of life in London's underbelly. 

But Nirjay Mahindru's script veers all over the place, piling up a mass of separate events that – even when they include a child's murder and the contemporaneous Ripper – do not a coherent story make, undermining our sense of the character and hindering the plot's forward movement until a final twist that is as illogical as it is baffling. 

Cut to the modern era, where an Indian shopkeeper from Kenya offers his story. His is the tale of a middle-class immigrant facing brighter prospects than his predecessor but still hitting the UK's racial, social and economic brick walls, leading also to a perhaps unexpected ending. 

But, while entertaining and thought-provoking, this character ultimately does not add up. The core of his story is of being radicalised by his experiences, but what does it say of him that he is so fatalistic when his son is beaten to a pulp by racist thugs and his wife dies of grief and then waits years until he is also beaten up before turning terrorist sympathiser? 

Why too do the character's comical spoonerisms and malapropisms turn so rapidly into full command of the adopted language? In fact, English isn't the adopted language for Indians and Pakistanis from Kenya – it's the language of their education and home nation – so it is the malapropisms that are improbable. 

Meanwhile, the character's accent is not Urdu as claimed, his Muslim wife would not believe in reincarnation, he would not drive on the wrong side of the road, and a metaphoric journey to Golgotha would be an improbable imaginary leap even for a modern British Christian character.

In reality anything is possible, but in a play a string of noticeable improbabilities cumulatively undermine believability. 

Produced by Conspirators' Kitchen in line with the company credo that 'theatre should be a simple process of telling a story dramatically', the idea of parallel lives is a promising one, and if only those stories were told simply and dramatically, the parallels might well resonate and convince. 

But the faux purple prose of the London whore and the meandering chitchat of the northern shopkeeper do not complement each other, just as there is too great a gap between the lush fabrics of Rachana Jadhav's innovative set for Act I and the sparsely accoutred stage of Act II. 

As the prostitute and shopkeeper respectively, Anjana Vasan and Raj Ghatak are both supremely focused, executing precisely what is asked of them by director Iqbal Khan with energy and an impressive depth of emotion. But they are let down by writer Nirjay Mahindru's awkwardnesses and excesses, and the writer is in turn let down by the director's failure to question the script's readiness or viability. 

So essentially you have two compelling actors giving their best to a weak script, with direction that vacillates between invention and over-loyalty to the playwright. As staged at the Tristan Bates Golgotha is still worth a punt, but will need a major rethink to go further.

Nick Awde

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Review - Golgotha - Tristan Bates Theatre 2012 

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