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The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Coventry Belgrade


The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel completes its 21 venue tour, launched in January at Canterbury’s Marlowe Theatre, at the Belgrade. 

And how welcome it was. This is a very good show indeed. And it took me by surprise. Why? For several reasons.

1) That Lucy Bailey’s inspiredly plotted staging excelled in so many different aspects, the whole frankly touching on perfection in just about every department.

2) That it had to live up to the 2012 and 2015 films, which fielded an unmatchably star-studded, classic mainly British cast: Judi Dench and Maggie Smith (yet again pitched together); the wonderful late Ronald Pickup, Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson; Penelope Wilton and Celia Imrie; plus (crucially) the inexhaustible Dev Patel, and two of the astounding Marquez imps, Ramona and Raoul.

And 3) As a play founded largely on (certainly in Part One) a vivacious group or and constant interactions, it might have begun to look like not so much A Passage to India or (Vikram Seth’s) A Suitable Boy; but rather (say) Agatha Christie’s big-cast Poirots: Death on the Nile, or Evil under the Sun. It could, in fact, begin to look very corny indeed.

And it wasn’t. So hats off to everybody. True, compared with the film(s) this was a vastly reduced ensemble. But at the Belgrade the cast shone at every turn. Paola Dionisetti’s begrudging, resentful Dorothy (the name seemingly an addition to the film); Belinda Lang’s show-off, here cockneyish and eminently dislikeable Madge (Celia Imrie); Paul Nicholas’ marriage-weary Douglas (Bill Nighy); especially Graham Seed’s Norman (much younger than Pickup, and startingly like a younger Roger Allam; the wondrous Tessa Peake-Jones (Judi Dench) in a role which latterly revealed those talents for which she is surely celebrated: maybe above all, for Iris Murdoch’s The Bell (1982) alongside the equally inspired Ian Holm, Kenneth Cranham and Edward Hardwicke. 


Tessa Peake- Jones as Evelyn and Paul Nicholas as Douglas

But perhaps we should acclaim above all three of the ‘Indian’ roles: in the Dev Patel role Nishad More, wonderfully hyperactive (very like Patel, superbly expressive in face, gesture and endless scurrying moves; Rekha John-Cheriyan’s miraculously evoked (and domineering) mother, scheming to keep her son tied to the hotel (in the end she wins, at a price); and for me, above all Harmage Singh Kalirai as the bent elderly servant, a strikingly and contrastingly upright waiter, and finally as the patently wise ‘Holy Man’ (from the enticing bells, surely Buddhist?). He had gifts that seemed to outshine everybody. Just to watch him manipulating sun-loungers and other bits of furniture was a masterly experience.

While we’re talking about hobbling, Marlene Sidaway’s Muriel (Maggie Smith) has such an entertaining – and accurate – old lady’s flat-footed walk she was on every appearance a treat to watch. Even more to the point, she was one of the shrewdest characters. Maggie Smith’s old ladies (Downton Abbey, Lady in the Van, Gosford Park, Ladies in Lavender) have unlike Judi Dench - become virtual caricatures; such a pity for a fabulous actress who much younger has given us Mis Jean Brodie, Olivier’s Desdemona, Much Ado, The Pumpkin Eater (with the superb but short-lived Peter Finch). But Sidaway’s Muriel was more original, more clever, more subtle.

jimmy one

 Harmage Singh Kalirai as Jimmy and Marlene Sidaway as Muriel

The Production credits need a paragraph to themselves: the show is presented by Simon Friend in Association with Jenny King, Trafalgar Theatre Productions, Gavin Kalin and David Adkin. So - that gets them out of the way. Many thanks to them all, for whatever their bit was.

The book is by hugely prolific and successful playwright Deborah Moggach, now into her seventies but looking far from it, 20 novels and other TV adaptations speak for themselves. A truly exceptional figure in crafting splendid, perceptive scripts, as in this case.

Director Lucy Bailey – and she proved it here - is a brilliant serial theatre group founder (also working very prominently for especially the RSC and Shakespeare’s Globe) who has – this exemplifies her range – turned her Pasolini admiration into stagework, staged Don’t Look Now (Sheffield), Jacobean drama and Milton’s Comus (Globe), John Gay (Regent’s Park), half a dozen (pithy) Shakespeare, and Turgenev (Old Vic).

In most cases, her blocking of this stage-packed show was eminently skilled and  intelligent, encompassing most available spaces and locations in splendidly varied manner, and steering her individuals in diverse ways where (mainly in Part 2) the script begins to focus on twosomes. In each of these the acting was alluring, sometimes tense, sometimes quasi-comic.    

Douglas (Paul Nicholas – a fretful Nighy in the film), although – or because – endlessly henpecked grew stronger, again in later stages, as he looks for and evolves a way out of an oppressive marriage, finally finding himself and fleeing with new inamorata Evelyn (Peake-Jones). A cluster of other women (Eileen Battye, Lang, Dionisotti) created notably different characters.

For me – beside Muriel and especially John-Cheriyan’s possessive mother and Kalirai’s wonderfully acted old, hunched, not quite decrepit lackey (Firs in The Cherry Orchard?) – the stars included, obviously, More’s frankly brilliant Sonny and also, here, Seed’s wonderfully wry, canny (and, we learn, deceptive) Norman. The ancillary girls – Shila Iqbal, Kerena Jagpal – Sahani, Kamila) brought additional colour, periodic feistiness; and Anant Varman intermittent amusement.


Belinda Lang as Madge


Colin Richmond’s costumes were consistently inspired: indeed a real highlight of the show. Every character (perhaps excluding Douglas) had changes of costume (overseen by Chris Cahill and the two i/c wardrobe) throughout the play, and this was one of the things that helped Bailey’s pacing immensely – especially in Part One, beginning with miraculous colour changes for Mrs. Kapoor, more for Sonny (whose hilarious catchphrase is ‘in a jiffy’), more still for Madge. But Richmond’s fixed set was magnificently well-devised. Its sultry browns might have been wearisome, but far from it: highly evocative. Its stairs and couple of steps and especially atmospheric arches brought a Delhi or Madras reality to the imagery (the location is in fact 1000-year-old – maybe more like 5,000 - south central Bengaluru: Bangalore).    

Well, a host of congratulations. But there are a few reservations. Richmond having established an appetising space behind his four Moghal arches, this space – which had potential – is virtually never used. Nor, as it happens, the uppermost flight of stairs, which might, by way of levels, have given added possibilities.

The play cuts in half, or more, the number of characters. This might be advantageous onstage, but it does create the potential for a lack of real variety. In the play, Sonny (More/Patel) virtually disappears after his energetic contributions at the start. A salient weakness, I felt. Part (or Act) One lacks something that gives Part Two much more fire: twosome exchanges, on an otherwise empty stage. A definite high  point was Muriel’s unexpected soliloquy. How refreshing that was, and how entrancingly poignantly delivered (by Sidaway). Indeed all these later exchanges were both refined, and well scripted; yet one cried out for something comparable in Part One.

But Bailey’s direction was so well devised that all those early sections, which could have become tiresome or wearisome, never did. They whizzed along, achieving a wonderful spring in the production.

A word for the Music, to some extent to the Lights, and certainly, as so often, to the technician. Khuljit Bhamra (and Mic Pool) seemed to get everything about the music right: apt, not overwhelming, well-judged; Oliver Fenwick knew when to dip or adapt or recolour the Lighting. And his focus on the mentioned above was just what was wanted. So both these departments shone.

So yes, in the case of everybody a highly successful production and very pleasing performances. More’s the pity, too late to recommend.

Roderic Dunnett


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