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A CurtainUp London London Review
Behind the Beautiful Forevers

"The ash from our cow dung fires drifts across and lands in their swimming pools." — Abdul
Behind the Beautiful Forevers
Shane Zaza as Abdul Husain and Hiran Abeysekera as Sunil Sharma (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)
Rufus Norris' vibrant production in the National Theatre's main house, the Olivier, brings us straight into rubbish sorting in the slums of Mumbai, of a place called Annawadi, close to the International airport and five international luxury hotels. Those of us who saw the movie Slumdog Millionaire will remember the terrible poverty of the children in the slum. This production has no children, just adults and is written by David Hare from the writings of Katherine Boo, a Pulitzer Prize Winning Staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. Katherine Boo was three years befriending the inhabitants of Annawadi.

Katherine Boo conducted interviews with real people living in the slums and wrote her documentary book published in 2011. The people in the slum undercity are an embarrassment to India as Mumbai tries to join developing Third World cities. The title "Beautiful Forever" comes from an advertising hoarding, advertising flooring or wall tiles, which is on the cusp of Annawadi and the International Airport.

We follow the trials of Zehrunisa Husain (Meera Syal) whose Muslim family has a rubbish sorting business. Brutality and corruption are everywhere. A criminal gang blind a suspected police informer, which made me gasp in horror, every bit as bad as Gloucester's in King Lear. That's the criminals, but these vulnerable people have as much to fear from the police and the officials whose job it is to uphold justice. There are other scenes which are brutal and harrowing to experience.

Katherine Boo's writing is rich, colourful and involving as we quickly make up our minds as to whom we condemn for lies and corruption, often abusing power. There are inexplicable mysteries like why one of the Husains' neighbours, Fatima Shaikh (Thusitha Jayasundera), a woman and prostitute they call "One Leg" because of her deformed foot would actually pour petrol on herself and set it on fire in order to implicate her rivals in an accusation of a crime.

The local woman who "fixes" things for a fee, Asha Waghekar (Stephanie Street) refuses a man a loan for a life-saving operation. Through her we meet her daughter Manju Waghekar (Anjana Vasan) a student who is trying to make sense of Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway with its study of English class structure in the 1920s. Manju makes more sense of Congreve's Way of the World. Through Manju we meet another teenage girl and think about the marriage issues for girls in India.

Zehrunisa sells everything she has to try to win justice for her family. In order to get her husband and son released she has to pay bribes. Ironically it's a feel good play because we can be so grateful for living in a society largely free from corruption. However there are parallels. When the police decide not to record something as a murder in order to massage the statistics or the hospital staff change the percentage burns from 35% to 95% to explain why she died and make them selves look better, we know that tinkering with statistics can also happen in the West.

Meera Syal gives a beautiful performance and there is a thread of wit and humanity that permeates these dark tales of oppression. Her son Abdul (Shane Zaza) is the prize rubbish sorter so quick is he with his hands and for whom we feel great compassion.

Katherine Boo's characters are a vast study and not all can be included in a dramatization without overcrowding the main theme and David Hare has been selective. Rufus Norris is a master of the visual, the physical spectacle in the theatre and no one seeing Behind the Beautiful Forevers will forget the planes flying low overhead and delivering what seemed like hundreds of plastic bottles onstage only for them to be swept up with makeshift sweepers made from sheets of cardboard.

Katrina Lindsay's set is wide and expansive with the hospital and police station replacing the makeshift tenement building that Zehrunisa wants to improve for her family. The saris are colourful and the sounds and dust of a bustling shanty town convince.

This production augurs so well for Rufus Norris due soon to take over the artistic directorship at the National in promising us worthwhile plays that only the National can afford to produce.

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Behind the Beautiful Forevers
Written by David Hare
Based on the book by Katherine Boo
Directed by Rufus Norris

Starring: Meera Syal, Stephanie Street, Shane Zaza, Thusitha Jayasundera, Mariam Haque
With: Gavi Singh Chera, Hiran Abeysekera, Esh Alladi, Nathalie Armin, Pal Aron, Tia-Lana Chinapyel, Vincent Ebrahim, Sartaj Garewal, Muzz Khan, Ranjit Krishnamma, Manjeet Mann, Nikita Mehta, Anjli Mohindra, Tia Palamathanan, Bharti Patel, Ronak Patani, Chook Sibtain, Anneika Rose, Anjana Vasan, Assad Zaman.
Designer: Katrina Lindsay
Lighting: Paule Constable
Sound Design: Paul Arditti
Video Design: Jack Henry James
Fight Director: Kate Waters
Running time: Two hours 45 minutes with an interval
Box Office 020 7452 3000
The National Theatre Website
Booking to 13th April 2015
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 19th November 2014 performance at the Olivier, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 9PX (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)
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