Lotus Beauty – Hampstead Theatre, London

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writer: Satinder Kaur Chohan

Director: Pooja Ghai

There’s a serious story fighting to get out of Satinder Kaur Chohan’s intermittently funny play about South Asian women working in a beauty parlour in Southall. But this is not an Indian version of Steel Magnolias, Robert Harling’s play which was turned into a film in 1989 starring nearly every one of Hollywood’s leading ladies of the time. Steel Magnolias had a sentimental heart; Lotus Beauty is a grittier watch.

However, at times, Lotus Beauty could do with some of Steel Magnolias’ sentimentality, as Chohan’s characters are hard to like, and in a story that is overwhelmed by too many narrative strands. Reita owns the beauty salon located under a noisy railway bridge in West London. With plaster falling down every time a train thunders above, she plans to buy a house and shop in another neighbourhood, here lazily referred to as a ‘leafy town’. For a play that is firmly connected to a specific location, this vagueness about this ‘greener, cleaner town’ seems odd, and the women could now be in any city rather than the London borough that is often nicknamed Little India.

It’s unclear where Reita will get the money from to move, but we soon discover that that she is not the best employer and in Kiran Lander’s hands Reita is cold and her aspirational desires even colder. She rents out her shed to one of her employees, Tanwant, an illegal immigrant who is on the look out for a husband and a passport. She will buy them if she has to, but where she will get the money from is uncertain. The fact that both Reita and Tanwant do find the money seems very unlikely.

For the most part, Tanwant, speaking in broken English, is a comic figure, but Zainab Hasan smoothly negotiates the switch from comedy to tragedy in the play’s final act. More interesting, however, is the employee we see the least. Ulrika Krishnamurti gives a compelling performance of cleaner Kamal who is lost in a life of oppression and abuse. She’s haunted by the ghosts of those women, who, at the end of their tethers, take their own lives by stepping in front of the trains that speed by. She says that she sees lotus flowers growing in the tracks.

Chohan deliberately keeps Kamal at a distance, but she still feels more real than Reita’s daughter, Pinky, who is doing her work experience in the salon and Big Dhadhi, Reita’s mother-in-law who comes into the salon to chat. As 15-year-old Pinky, Anshula Bain does well and brings the shallow over-sharer to life, while veteran actor Soaud Faress has a harder role to play. At first her character, sporting a long beard that she refuses to get shaved, seems only to be there to get laughs, but in the third act she is given a monologue, which, while moving, jars with the rest of the play’s structure. No one else gets a monologue like hers.

It’s refreshing that Chohan refuses to explain everything what is said for a non-South Asian audience. There is a glossary at the end of the playtext that may help, but otherwise some words and concepts may remain hazy for those not part of the South Asian community. For instance, Big Dhadhi’s ordeal at the airport is based on real events when immigration officials would test to see if female South Asian newcomers were virgins, a fact listed in Hampstead Theatre’s helpful free programme. Chohan’s forward to her play also explains why Sikhs are not allowed to cut their hair,, and this then explains Big Dhadhi’s beard.

Southall also is the birthplace of one of Britain’s most important feminist groups, Southall Black Sisters, which was set up in 1979 to give support to black and Asian women who are victims of violence. It is against this background that Lotus Beauty takes place, and while there are no men in Chohan’s play all the women are affected by men’s decisions. It’s just a shame that some of the important issues are obscured by too much comedy that doesn’t always land.

Runs until 18 June 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

Uneasy blend of comedy and drama

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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