exotic trio

Eavesdropping trio Rula Lenska as Madge, Marlene Sidaway as Muriel and Hayley Mills as Evelyn. Pictures: Johan Persson

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel 

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham


Every so often along comes a play with no great drama or angst, no revelations or tragedies, just a well written, well acted gentle comedy that is a sheer delight from beginning to end, you can just sit back, relax and submerge yourself in a night of comfort theatre.

Written by Deborah Moggach and based on her best selling 2004 novel These Foolish Things and inspired by the 2011 hit film, we join a group of fairly ordinary people, retirees, setting out on the final lap of life’s journey.

Not for them the gloomy God’s waiting room scenario of a retirement home with its lounge of worn wing backed chairs and pervading aroma of cabbage and worse - no, they are booked in at the luxurious, palatial Marigold Hotel in Bangalore.

At least that is how the brochure described it, sadly, the reality disagrees. The phones are more decorative than operative, internet is merely intermittent, plumbing is, or rather isn’t much of the time, while the food is . . . let’s just leave it there.

Sonny, son of the recently deceased owner, promises everything will be fixed in a jiffy – which it seems is similar to never - in a lovely performance from Nishad More. His mother Mrs Kapoor, a fine performance from Rekha John-Cheriyan, uses every trick in the book to keep him by her side, under her thumb and married off to a rich girl she wants to arrange.

All of which makes his romance with the attractive, free-spirit Sahani, brought to vivid life by Shila Iqbal, a fleeting affair, a catastrophic catalogue of snatched and often missed moments battling against constant maternal interference.

The guests are a mixed bag, there is Norman, a spade’s a spade Norman, played grumpily by Andy de la Tour, brother of Frances in case you were wondering, a widower, in a sort of way, and an accountant, well an actuary to be exact, which is even duller, who is under the impression Indian women go for older men . . . a theory which leaves a quizzical Mrs Kapoor asking “Why?” 

Then there is Dorothy, ex-BBC, who Richenda Carey takes away with the fairies, at least on the face of it, but Dorothy has a sad tale to tell eventually involving the hotel’s servant Jimmy, played by Kriss Dosanjh, in a life that has had its share of both happiness and regrets.

Muriel, is a cranky ex-cleaner from Tooting who hates Indian food, shipped out to the Marigold by the council because it was cheaper than a home. Marlene Sidaway cleverly creates a character we warm to as she slowly embraces the changes and smashes the Indian caste system along the way, at least as far as the hotel was concerned, befriending the hotel’s bottom of the social heap untouchable cleaner Tikal played by Anant Varman. 

exotic cast

War footing as Norman, played by Andy de la Tour, explains the options

Then there is the stage commanding Rula Lenska’s Madge, who three husbands behind her, is looking to audition a fourth as her own life’s play enters its final act. She is supremely confident, does not suffer fools and has reached an age where she does not give a . . . you can fill that in yourself, but the more senior members of the audience did agree with her, mainly because they don’t either.

They have all lost partners in one way of another as has Evelyn, played or rather underplayed by Hayley Mills. Evelyn is a quiet, timid sort of woman, fallen on hard times as her late husband, too embarrassed to tell her of their financial plight, had left her having to sell the house to balance the books when he died.

She is the cat lady, in one of Sonny’s cutting asides, feeding stray cats being something the British always did he tells us, and she sees good in everyone, fighting, in her own quiet and gentle way for justice and fairness. It is a beautifully balanced performance creating a meek woman showing remarkable strength and resolve when called upon.

Then we have the married couple Douglas and Jean, who have travelled the world, ticking off the sights at every destination like trainspotters. Jean, a determined Eileen Battye, is the driving force, a whirlwind of action with Douglas, a resigned and defeated Paul Nicholas, in her wake. You suspect that once he followed her out of love, now more out of habit and duty, his life no longer his own.

The hotel may be run down, have mushrooms growing on the skirting boards, a chef who can drink but can’t cook and phones and internet in name only much of the time, but it becomes home to our ragbag band of retirees, a familiar friend to hold on to in the final hurrah.

So, when Mr Gupta, played by Tiran Aakel, owner of the call centre down the street where Sahani works, decides to expand his operation with an offer for the hotel to, the world of our Bangalore Brits is in danger of falling apart.

It’s a call to arms for Sonny and the guests along with Sahani’s call centre colleagues Kamila, played by Kerena Jagpal and Mohan, Anant Varman again, in the battle to save what has become their home. Do they manage it? Come on, this is a production so full of feel good it will keep you happy for weeks.

It is a play full of humour, close observations of Shakespeare's sixth age of man, too close to comfort at times, a tale of friendship, of affection, of human kindness and spirit with moments of both sadness and small triumphs. We could perhaps call it life.

Colin Richmond’s set is a wonderful, impressive design with terraces on roof and garden all aided by Oliver Fenwick’s clever lighting plot which sees the gradual passage of day into night as well as subtle highlights for telling scenes. Kiljit Bhamra has composed a delightful selection of incidental music continuing his mission of demystifying and adding to the understanding of Indian music and instruments.

The play makes no demands and you will head off home with a smile and a heart lighter than when you entered, and for those of a certain age, it is not just a play, it is a possibility!

Sympathetically directed by Lucy Bailey, the Hotel is taking bookings to 25-02-23. 

Roger Clarke


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