A star-studded show, just like the film.
Hayley Mills is in Leicester this week starring in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel at Curve. As a huge fan of the star’s childhood work (such as Pollyanna and the original Parent Trap), I admit that I wanted to see the show just for her. Yet I left the theatre fan-girling over the whole cast and I emerged with a new outlook on ageing.
Based on Deborah Moggach’s novel ‘These Foolish Things’, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel became a hit film, got its own sequel, and even inspired a documentary series. Deborah became the playwright for this stage production, continuing to cause a sea of change in our attitudes towards old age.
The story takes us to Bangalore, India, when a grieving mother and son turn their run-down home into a ‘hotel’ for retired Brits. The first group arrive at the Marigold to accommodation that was not what they were sold in the brochure. It takes place over several months, slowly revealing the very different reasons why each of them chose a retirement home in India.
A brilliant clash of personalities eventually fit together throughout their time in the “home” and find that rather than “waiting to die” there, they’ve unexpectedly begun a new chapter in life.
Their relationships deal with an abundance of cultural issues without bombarding the audience with complex ideas. It gives you just enough to ponder on, gently nudging you into a new way of thinking.
The two cultures share ideas on their ways of life. To the Bangalore residents: that cast should not interfere with a person’s ability to better themselves. And to the Brits: how we look after our older generation is disgraceful – because it really is. Each guest at the Marigold is estranged from their family members, lonely and feeling that life is over, whereas hoteliers Sonny Kapoor and mother Mrs Kapoor prove that family is vital.
Themes of race, class, death and religion set the scene to present us with differing perspectives on family, loneliness, social divide, sexuality, anxiety, friendship, falling in love, falling out of love, and old age. It all sounds pretty heavy but Moggach and director Lucy Bailey have done a fabulous job of introducing these themes subtly in the form of passing comments, cultural references, and comedy.
A most touching performance was given by Marlene Sidaway as Muriel. Her stuck-in-the-mud, grumpy attitude provides many comedic breaks, but it’s when she connects with the Indian ‘sweeper boy’ Tikal (played by Anant Varman, who also doubles up as lovable call centre worker, Mohal) that really draws you in. Tikal is from a lower cast than Sonny and Mrs Kapoor. Unable to speak the same language, Muriel empathises with Tikal and encourages him to better himself. Despite her refusal to take part in Indian life – from the food to even stepping foot outside – she finds this unique friendship gives her a new lease of life.
Richenda Carey plays a mysterious and aloof - but very sweet - Dorothy, intriguing the audience as to what is happening in her life right now… and where she sneaks off to so often. Andy de la Tour is hilarious as Norman. He’s a very down-to-earth British expat who talks openly about sex and is selfish with the newspaper crosswords. He discovers that it’s OK to let his guard down once in a while.
Madge is played by the fabulous Rula Lenska, who plays the character with feistiness and sex appeal. You can’t help but be drawn to her on stage. While she may be blunt at times, she’s also endearing, kind and courageous.
Rekha John-Cheriyan as the stern but warm-hearted Mrs Kapoor and Nishad More as the clumsy and adorable Sonny Kapoor have a tender chemistry on stage. The mother-son relationship pulls at the heart strings as surely most can relate in some way – whether it’s the pressure of family duty, or the guilt that can come from living your own life.
Shila Iqbal is endearing as Sonny’s love interest Sahani. She builds the bridge between the younger and older characters. Her line “riddled with aches and pains and regrets” stuck with me because it was delivered amusingly but also because it was true, reminding you that life is too short for remorse.
Of course, Hayley Mills would steal the show for me. She plays Evelyn, one of the more timid characters as she has more battles with anxiety in older age. Her elegance and gentleness make it incredibly easy to empathise with her. Evelyn also deals with loneliness after the death of her husband and exclusion from her daughter’s life. And a will-they-won’t-they storyline between her and one of the other characters is painful yet beautiful to watch – another reminder that you’re never too old to live your life the way you choose.
The set is made up of a huge shabby hotel interior, lobby and garden with sweeping stairs and archways that create depth and layers for the characters to hide, fornicate, and explore in.
Although the set never changes, sound and lighting transport the audience to busy India. The use of smoke and warm lighting portray the stifling heat of Bangalore. The sounds of busy streets, cars trailing past and unintelligible chitter chatter sets the atmosphere of the active streets outside the not-so-comfortable comfort-zone of the home.
The characters learn a lot about themselves, as we learn about how we see the elderly. There is still adventure yet to be had.