Review: THEATRE Skeleton Soho Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture
As you enter the theatre for Skeleton, Tanika Gupta's first produced stage play, a craftsman high up on Keith Khan's beautiful water-girded, ochre and red veranda set, is seen intently fashioning a statue of Durga, the 10-armed goddess who, in Hindu mythology, came down to earth to rid the world of evil. Scarred survivors of Terrence McNally's A Perfect Ganesh, which was presided over by Durga's elephant-headed son, may feel that they can wait indefinitely before rushing to see another play with an Indian deity. But where McNally's touristic confection was EM Forster re-written for the Broadway blue-rinse crowd, Gupta's drama, which was inspired by a short story by Rabindranath Tagore, has a captivating cultural purity.

Having a skeleton in the cupboard is a strangely literal business in this piece. It focuses on Gopal (Ronny Jhutti), a young medical student who returns from Calcutta for a vacation to his Bengal village. The homecoming is strained - partly because Gopal is now full of the superiorities of city life and partly because he has fallen for Mukti, his professor's daughter, and so keeps postponing an encounter with Anju (Parminder Nagra), his childhood sweetheart and fiancee, who is loved in hapless silence by his less successful best friend, the village schoolteacher, Biju (Ameet Channa).

To aid his studies, Gopal's proud father (Renu Setna) has bought him a skeleton which comes in its own lined casket. This pile of bones proves to be a major liability, however, for when Gopal caresses them in an ache of longing for Mukti, they turn back - with a spooky, eye-rubbing suddenness in Jonathan Lloyd's beguiling production - into the ravishingly beautiful woman, Nayani, who has been dead these 20 years. Played with a lovely impish narcissism and teasing seductiveness by Mina Anwar, this bizarre revenant proceeds to drive Gopal into a mad obsession with her as she treats him to tantalising, wittily staged re-enactments of her earthly career.

Humorous but heartfelt, the play is a fable-like demonstration of the dangers of self-absorption, both in Nayani's story and in Gopal's fixated response to it. She, it emerges, is a woman warped by vanity and by being confined from the world by her possessive worshippers. Rather than lose her loveliness in pregnancies, she preferred to poison two husbands and then take her own life so that her corpse could be preserved as an icon of beauty at its peak. If the skeleton is testimony to the futility of that ambition, Nayani's plot, now in this new posthumous lease of life, is to tempt Gopal to join her in eternity through a similarly suicidal and backfiring act of hubris.

The doubling of actors in the inner and outer dramas leads one to expect more intriguing, compensatory parallels between the lives of Gopal and Nayani than actually emerge and there are irritating loose ends and under- developed details. But this is a touchingly comic and humane drama, particularly in the contrasting realism of the honourable, gas-prone best friend and jilted fiancee who are liberated by Gopal's anti-social obsession into an at first awkward, then joyous awareness that they are made for one another and that settling for what you can have is not necessarily a case of settling for less. Gopal, too, learns realism and, with the background of a ceremony in honour of the evil-ridding Goddess Durga at the close, there's a weird sense that Nayani may herself have been a supernatural blessing in disguise.

To 28 June. Booking: 0171-287 5060