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A CurtainUp London London Review
Rafta, Rafta

Jesus doesn't eat curry.
---- Eeshwar Dutt
Rafta, Rafta
Rokhsaneh Ghawam-Shahidi (Vina Patel) and Ronny Jhutti (Atul Dutt)
(Photo: Catherine Ashmore)
Based on Bill Naughton's 1963 play All in Good Time, Ayub Khan-Din sets Rafta, Rafta, which translates from the Hindi as "slowly, slowly", in Bolton's Asian community. Those with long memories will recall Roy Boulting's 1966 film The Family Way which starred Hywel Bennett and John and Hayley Mills. The theme is one of the difficulty for a newly wed couple, who have no option but to start their married life living with the groom's parents. Add to their problems, a history of the groom, Atul (Ronny Jhutti) not getting on with his self opinionated, controlling father, Eeshwar, played by Bollywood star Harish Patel, and the question is not when this marriage will be consummated but whether it ever will be.

It works very well, taking this play which was written by Naughton, based on his home town in Lancashire and set in a close-knit Northern community and transposing it to an extended, but equally close-knit Asian family. What are contrasted here are the experiences of the immigrant community. The younger generation are first generation British, born and schooled in Lancashire. When Eeshwar mentions that on his wedding day he had the gift, from his father, of a water buffalo whereas Atul's wife has given him a wedding present of a Blackberry, we can visualise the rapid change to this family from living in an agrarian economy to an industrialised one. The largest manifestation of culture which is common to both India and Britain is the Bollywood movie. The parents came from the Indian sub-continent to provide a better future and education for their children and so those children more than usual, carry the parents' hopes and ambition.

It is in the interpretation of these hopes that Atul falls foul of his father. The old man wants to make all the decisions for his son but the son is as unlike him as chalk is from paneer. The son loves Western classical music, the father loves Indian Bhangra folk dance music. The problem really is that Atul isn't allowed the space to be himself. On his wedding day, the old man insists on arm wrestling the boy. We see that Atul is succeeding and generously lets his father win the contest. This gracious act is rewarded by the father crowing and humiliating the boy in front of the wedding party. When the newly weds go upstairs, their bed collapses, the base having been booby trapped by his younger brother, Jai (Rudi Dharmalingham). Atul's beautiful bride Vina (Rokhsanek Ghawam-Shahidi) laughs and for Atul it is the last straw. Later Vina tells her mother that they are not yet man and wife and although she is asked to tell no-one, the secret is out. Soon the whole town is gossiping salaciously about the gentle Atul and his still virgin bride. In a moving performance, Meera Syal as Atul's mother, understands why her son clashes with her cantankerous old husband and, by looks only, hints as to why the two men are so very different from each other.

All my sympathies were with the handsome, thoughtful Atul, so much so that I found it impossible to laugh at him. Harish Patel's performance as Eeshwar Dutt is very dislikeable, he is stubborn, difficult, intruding, fat, stupid and I cannot find a redeeming feature. Ronny Jhutti on the other hand is intelligent but also hot headed and maybe hyper sensitive. Meera Syal gives an intriguing performance as Eeshwar's long suffering wife, full of silent exasperation and fond tolerance for her difficult husband. I really enjoyed Atul and his projectionist friend Etash (Arsher Ali) recreating scenes from a Bollywood movie, a rare chance to see Atul relaxed and amusing. Vina's parents (Shaheen Khan and Kriss Dosanjh) too show the weakness in their marriage as we understand that the mother is jealous of how the father dotes on his lovely daughter.

The set is two floors of a small terraced house, behind a photo screen of the whole street which conveys well the crammed, close quarters at which everyone lives. Inside the house, everything is decorated, Indian pictures and flock wallpaper, a profusion of patterns and colour which adds to the claustrophobic effect. Indian music too pervades the production giving authenticity.

Rafta, Rafta succeeds in making the transfer from Western to Eastern culture but as a comedy, some of the laughter is a too near the bone for my total enjoyment. Ayub Khan-Din's playscript has lots of topical references with good jokes and thank heavens there is a happy ending, courtesy Mrs Dutt.

Written by Ayub-Khan Din based on All in Good Time by Bill Naughton
Directed by Nicolas Hytner

Starring: Meera Syal, Harish Patel, Ronny Jhutti
With: Rudi Dharmalingham, Arsher Ali, Simon Nagra, Shaheen Khan. Rokhsaneh Ghawam-Shahidi, Natalie Grady, Kriss Dosanjh
Design: Tin Hatley
Lighting: Hugh Vanstone
Sound: Paul Groothuis
Music: Niraj Chag
Running time: Two hours 25 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0208 7452 3000
Booking to 23rd June 2007
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 26th April 2007 performance at the Lyttelton Theatre, Royal National Theatre, south Bank, London SE1 (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)
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