Behind the Beautiful Forevers, National Theatre, review: Magnificent

Rufus Norris's production has a humane, dignified sweep

The shadow of a mighty passenger jet flies low over the Olivier stalls, the nearness of its deafening roar making the scalp tighten. Then, like a cloudburst of blessings, a great cascade of used plastic bottles drops from the skies. A horde of scavengers with their cardboard scoops go into frantic overdrive.

We're in Annawadi, the makeshift slum at the edge of Mumbai airport, in the shadow of luxury five-star hotels, where many of the residents wrest a living by scrabbling for the recyclable garbage of the rich.  New Yorker journalist, Katherine Boo, spent three years here researching her deeply-informed non-fiction book of the same name which tackles existence in a settlement that is both a by-product of India's economic miracle and seen as an embarrassing obstacle to it.

David Hare's excellent stage version honours and reinforces the book's refusal to trade in slum-poverty tourism. The speed and economy with which the play gives us a sharp sense both of widespread societal corruption and of the felt individuality of the people forced to negotiate it are remarkable.  With an ace 30-strong cast and an eloquently animated set (by Katrina Lindsay).

Rufus Norris's production has a humane, dignified sweep that captivates but never resorts to wheedling ingratiation.  At the heart of the thronging, kaleidoscopic show is the gentle, introverted figure of Abdul (terrific Shane Zaza), a 19 year old wizard at rubbish-sorting who pines to be honest. 

But a jealous false accusation from a crazed one-legged woman pitches his relatively prosperous Muslim family onto the wrong side of the law and into a ruinous world where even to read the charge sheet against you, you have to pay an official a hefty bribe. 

In the dramatist's deft shaping of the material, we see that this is tangled tale of two matriarchs who want better for their children than they had and make costly mistakes.  In the role of Abdul's mother Zehrunisa, Meera Syal movingly charts the growing desperation of this scornful self-improving Mother Courage as the family fortune is wiped out by the grasping “justice” system and by the global recession. 

She's contrasted with Asha, the slum's ambitious, financially flint-hearted hearted fixer, whose combination of imperiousness and underlying insecurity are brilliantly conveyed by Stephanie Street.  Her daughter Manju (Anjana Vasan) hopes to be the first woman in Annawadi to gain a degree and is troubled by Asha's corrupt liaisons as is indicated by a distressing scene in which insistent phone calls from an officer wanting a quickie force her to leave, in a blaze of recrimination, the little 40th birthday party her children have created for her.

Asha eventually contends that it's only through corruption that you can make your way up.  It has paid for Manju''s pained, moral   And the poor, calculatedly set at odds with each other so that they won't rebel, could take lessons from the government in fraud. 

There's the odd heartening moment where the cycle is briefly broken, as when the usually mild pelts his rubbish at a particularly extortionate official.  Magnificent.

To April 13; 020 7452 3000 – NT Live broadcast on March 12

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