The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Writer: Deborah Moggach

Director: Lucy Bailey

Sonny can’t seem to do anything right – at least, according to his overbearing mother. He’s forever being compared unfavourably with his siblings while he tries to make a go of their hotel in Bangalore. In truth, it’s past its best. But then the ever-enthusiastic Sonny has a brainwave: why not advertise in England for long-term elderly residents? It’ll be cheaper than a home there and the warm climate will be kind to ageing joints. And so Sonny and his mother are joined by a disparate group of retired British residents.

The story began life as a novel, These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach, and Moggach has adapted it for the stage. In between, of course, it was adapted into a feature film with a star-studded ensemble cast. A feature of the film was the contrast between India and the previous experiences of the residents who find themselves in the brightly coloured world of hustle and bustle. Can a stage adaptation evoke the same feelings? Director Lucy Bailey and her cast of 14 certainly do their best, but that feeling of constant movement in crowded thoroughfares is lacking. Colin Richmond’s set is mainly static and it evokes the Marigold’s faded grandeur very well, providing spaces for the hotel’s public and private areas. But while transitions are slick, with a particularly memorable one where Evelyn (Tessa Peake-Jones) ventures into the street for the first time, the locations outside of the hotel don’t quite work as well. It is an ever-present, looming over the action, perhaps intentionally so as its existence is the very reason the characters find themselves together. Lighting designer, Oliver Fenwick, brings an authentic colour palette to proceedings, that supports the sense of place.

So we have a disparate group of Brits arriving and all looking for something different from the Marigold. Not all are totally happy to be there, but all have a journey ahead of them that will lead to self-revelation and growth. The one defining feature of all of them, as Moggach and Bailey agree, is that they are determinedly looking forward. They have pasts – and as the play progresses we learn about them – but they are not living in the past. However, most are, at least at the outset, a touch stereotypical, although this diminishes as their characters develop and their horizons widen.

While the play is undoubtedly feel-good (and does leave one feeling uplifted), it also touches on a number of difficult areas, albeit with a light touch. The rigid caste system, for example, is examined, as is racism through – as ever – ignorance, as well as the tension between making a good (arranged) marriage as compared with marrying for love. And to be fair, the concept of choosing a life partner for love gets mixed reviews from the Brits in the hotel.

Nishad More brings us a fully three-dimensional Sonny, full of inner conflict as he tries to measure up to his father and siblings and make a go of the hotel. Rekha John-Cheriyan is his overbearing mother, trying to be pragmatic. Their relationship is sometimes reminiscent of that in Steptoe and Son, especially in a scene where his mother tries to disrupt Sonny’s burgeoning romance with Sahani (Shila Iqbal). Iqbal’s Sahani is effervescent, full of youthful exuberance and lights up the stage. She also demonstrates emotional depths as she debates whether Sonny is right for her. Marlene Sidaway plays loud-mouthed Muriel largely for laughs on her journey away from casual racism as she gains an understanding of Indian society. Tessa Peake-Jones’ Evelyn positively blossoms in a heartwarming way, while one is aware that there is something not-quite-right in the so-called perfect relationship enjoyed by Douglas (Paul Nicholas) and Jean (Eileen Battye). Anant Varman shows sweeper Tikal’s growing confidence when he is befriended by Muriel, as he develops beyond the invisible untouchable. His smile as he finally feels accepted is a beacon of openness and warmth.

There’s plenty of froth and fun, lots of knowing jokes and the occasional tug on the heartstrings. Well worth catching.

Runs until: 17 June 2023

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. 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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