THEATRE / Telling tales from Bollywood: Lift: Sarah Hemming on a spoof of Indian films, Yerma in Punjabi, Chengdu Theatre Co and the Hanoi Water Puppets

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The Independent Culture
AS THE title credits for Moti Roti roll up the big screen, and soupy music floods through the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, at that ear-drum- threatening pitch specially reserved for B-movies, you could be forgiven for thinking you'd strayed into the wrong auditorium. Keith Khan's drama begins with a 10-minute snatch of crudely shot film, in which a young Indian man is seduced at a party by a luscious, screen-filling temptress. But just as she looms towards him (and the audience), glossy lips puckered for the big kiss - whoosh, the screen is whisked away and there are the characters on stage, some decades later, reduced to life size and marital misery.

Moti Roti is based on a wonderful, bold idea that could have been a technical disaster, but is carried off with great wit and ingenuity. Khan has produced a piece for theatre that at once sends up and pays homage to the prolific Indian film industry. Not only is the story split between celluloid and stage, but it uses screens cleverly to reproduce cinematic set-pieces on stage - the best being a meticulous tracking shot and the (apparently obligatory) wet-sari dance, which had the audience in stitches.

The plot - itself a mouthwatering combination of soap opera and melodrama - concerns a self-made Indian property developer, his calculating wife and ambitious son. The Kumar company makes its money exploiting poor locals in the East End of London. But then A J, the ruthless son, meets Zeenat, a beautiful architect with worthy principles. He plans a face-saving exercise, in the shape of a health centre, to win the heart and elevations of his Bombay beauty. But A J is unaware of the skeletons lurking behind every cupboard door in his parents' lavish home, just waiting for a moment to come clattering out.

Performing in Hindi and English, the cast negotiates the multi-layered style of the show with skill and humour, slipping into song and dance whenever emotions run high, and delivering such stirring lines as 'I wonder how the same blood flows in our veins' with relish. Particularly good are Nitish Bharadwaj as A J, the calculating smoothie - all kitsch and kisses; Jamila Massey as his mother, a matriarch of blood-curdling avarice; and Ajay Chhabra as Zeenat's bumbling cousin and self-appointed chaperone. Some of the dances could do with trimming down, but, that aside, the show is a riot (to 17 July).

A very different window on to Indian life and culture is offered by Yerma at the Tricycle Theatre (to 3 July). Neelam Man Singh Chowdhry's production translates into Punjabi Lorca's harrowing Spanish drama about a childless woman and relocates it to a village in the Punjab. The setting makes sense of Yerma's predicament, and the style, drawing on traditional music and movement, conveys her story with beautiful economy. As the production opens, Yerma, clad in black, gold and red, stands in a spotlight pouring water from one vessel to another - a simple image that somehow suggests both hope and futility.

In Chowdhry's production, Yerma's story is intensified by the fact that she starts out light-hearted. Ramanjit, as Yerma, gives a moving performance - warm and mercurial to begin with, teasing her husband and giggling with her girlfriends, she gradually turns sour and still. Her solitary sadness is exacerbated in this production by the exuberant crowd scenes, and Chowdhry uses naqqals (female impersonators) to add an interesting twist to Lorca's sympathetic portrayal of the plight of women.

Women in turn-of-the-century China didn't have many options either. Ripples across Stagnant Water (Riverside Studios, run ended) adapted for Chengdu Theatre Company from Li Jieren's novel, is a Bovary-esque story about a spirited young woman who, married to a nice but boring husband, is tempted by a dashing rogue.

The production, beautifully lit, warmly acted, and hung with huge Chinese scrolls, offers a fascinating portrait of Chinese life before the 1911 revolution. We see a wedding ceremony, a funeral, and learn domestic and aesthetic details (when Deng Yaogu is married, her husband's friends immediately inspect the size of her feet). Most interesting, however, is the way the play illustrates the near-impossibility of attaining individual happiness. To get any measure of contentment, Deng Yaogu (a touching Wu Shanshan) has to be both ruthless and resigned.

The Hanoi Water Puppets (at Highbury Fields to 4 July) find a completely different style to offer a glimpse of Vietnamese peasant life. On a giant pond garnished with lilies, intricately modelled puppets perform scenes from daily and mythical life (manoeuvred by puppeteers standing waist-deep behind a screen). A fisherman chases elusive frogs, children swim doggy-paddle and terrorise the local ducks, a legendary dragon dances, spitting flames and sparks. The detail is remarkable, the precision of each animal's movement very funny. Using an ancient tradition, the show gives a tantalising, witty portrait of a distant world.

'Lift' runs to 12 July (071-413 1459)

(Photograph omitted)