Theatre: Moti Roti, Royal Court, London

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The Independent Culture
If the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, then Sadhana (Mamta Kaash), an Indian living in Britain, prepares dishes that are the culinary equivalent of a knife in the belly. The husband who has long oppressed her dies - dispatched, she believes, by her handiwork with a brick of lard and a few bags of Tate & Lyle. "It was my cooking that killed him!" she exclaims to her brash Trinidadian sister Dolly (Sakuntala Ramanee). "Madhur Jaffrey is my guru!"

With the boor gone, Sadhana finds herself confronted with other people's ideas of how she should continue her life. Her son Ricky (Vivek Trived) steps into his father's shoes and starts haranguing her; his friend Ahsan (Raji James) tumbles into an inconsequential affair with her; while Dolly attempts to broaden her horizons with feminist chit-chat and rum. Watched from the heavens by her ancestral mothers, Sadhana starts to turn her life around, to Dolly's delight and Ricky's horror.

If this new, enormously imaginative work from the Moti Roti company has a whiff of soap opera about it, that's no accident. Neither are its suggestions of the more ostentatious excesses of the Indian Bollywood films. Ashish Kotak, who wrote the peppery script, plays mix-and-match with the genres, achieving a stylistic plurality to mirror Sadhana's jamboree-bag of Anglo- Indian influences. It's an unlikely mix: the stilted non sequiturs of daytime TV drama, the richly-textured dream and dance sequences of popular Indian cinema, which so often appear incongruous to the virgin eye, and the earthy comedy of the ancestral mothers, who might have stepped straight out of Chaucer.

With the exception of the commanding, indomitable Kaash, Kotak's finely tuned dialogue is fumbled over by a cast who are all fingers and thumbs. Troubling themes still manage to surface, the most resonant being that of transformation - Sadhana's, from cowering slave to proto-feminist avenger, or Dolly's, which travels in the opposite direction, or that of Ashan, who turns from wily charmer to tyrannical wife-beater. And these are reflected neatly in the play's fantastical carnivalesque interludes which, far from being a cover for scene-shifters, reveal a spiritual depth which the largely inexperienced cast cannot convey.

There are the Hijras, for instance, the cross-dressing eunuchs who signify a state of flux, gliding proudly about the stage, a storm of sequins making them shimmer like a stretch of ocean in the sunlight. The throbbing bhangra which they dance to is used to stirring effect, that wailing, quietly desperate music which always, like the characters here and in Bollywood, seems to dream of something better.

You feel, though, that there is unmined potential in the use of film. It's mostly employed as a scene-setter, and to good effect - a night on the razzle-dazzle is heralded by a scratch animation loop of oncoming taxi-cabs and frantic sperms which plays continuously on a wall behind the actors. It works so well as visual shorthand, it's a pity that nobody was brave enough to spread it a little thicker. There was probably the worry that it would be too much of a good thing. But sometimes more is more. It's a lesson that the rest of this giddy, invigorating marriage of the real and surreal has got off pat.

`MAA', Royal Court Theatre, London SW1 (0171-730 1745), 3.30pm & 7.30pm today only