Behind the Beautiful Forevers review – a triumph for David Hare and Meera Syal

Olivier, London
Meticulously detailing the endless grind of Mumbai slum life helps this spirited adaptation of Katherine Boo’s award-winning reportage avoid any danger of quaintness

A spotlight on Mumbai’s invisible poor

When Katherine Boo’s book about life in the Mumbai slum alongside the city’s international airport first appeared, many critics compared it to a novel. But turning a piece of brilliant reportage into a play is not easy. Although in the first 20 minutes I had doubts about the project’s viability in the end I was swept away by the integrity of David Hare’s text and the pulsating vigour of the production by Rufus Norris, the National’s director-designate.

The problems are obvious: there are so many stories to tell, so many characters to get a hold of. But Norris gives us an instant picture of the Annawadi undercity where young scavengers survive by stealing, picking through and sorting the detritus from the airport and the nearby hotels. Hare also focuses on a violent dispute inside the slum. The one-legged Fatima, enraged by the relative prosperity of a neighbouring Muslim family, the Husains, accuses them of responsibility for the burns she has inflicted on herself. What follows is an extraordinary story, mixed with hope and despair, of the resilience of the Husains in the face of disaster.

With great skill, Hare picks out a central theme from the multifarious detail of Boo’s book: the difficulty of doing good in an imperfect world. In that sense the pivotal figure is Abdul Husain, a prematurely aged 16-year-old, whose gift for sorting trash is the source of his family’s income. But there is something deeply moving about Abdul’s resolve, after he has been shoved into a detention centre, to live an honest life: for me, the scene where he rounds on a government official who wants cash in return for aborting his father’s trial, is the emotional highlight of the evening. And Abdul’s story is paralleled by that of the 18-year-old Manju who rejects the unsavoury means her mother, Asha, employs to pay for her daughter’s education.

behind the beautiful forevers meera syal thusitha jayasundera
Fatima (Thusitha Jayasundera) and matriarch Zehrunisa Husain (Meera Syal) square off in Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/Guardian

Obviously, there are some things you lose from the book: Asha’s involvement in local politics, for instance, and the cryptic vividness of Boo’s prose in describing this “sumpy plug of slum”. What you gain is a concentration on youthful resistance to endemic corruption and the sense of seeing a living community in action. Norris’s production, Katrina Lindsay’s design and Paule Constable’s lighting brilliantly avoid the temptation to make Mumbai poverty seem exotically colourful. They do this in various ways. One is by focusing on the continuity of endless toil. Another is by re-creating the grim physical context in specific detail. Everything seems right, from the rickety slum dwellings to the bleakly bare-walled cop-shop and hospital, all shadowed by the fortress-like nature of the looming airport.

In a vast cast there are also some outstanding performances. Shane Zaza as the determined Abdul, Meera Syal as his free-swearing mother, Anjana Vasan as the self-improving Manju wrestling with the intricacies of Congreve and Virginia Woolf, Stephanie Street as the dubiously pragmatic Asha and Pal Aron as an inspirational teacher are all first-rate. But, without in any way sentimentalising slum life, the play leaves one deeply affected by its stress on the possibility of goodness in a world of desperate deprivation.

In rep until April. Box office: 020-7452 3000. Venue: Olivier theatre, London


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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