Theatre: Touch of Chekhov in Calcutta

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The Independent Culture
ONCE UPON a time, the West End was stuffed with characters called Daphne, Bertie and Violet who spent their time popping back and forth to the drinks trolley. Then along came the angry young men who abandoned the verandah for the kitchen sink. Half a century later, it comes as something of a surprise to welcome back people with precisely those names and preoccupations. The shock of the old? Not quite. Ayub Khan-Din burst upon the scene with his riotous and riotously successful comedy East is East. His new play continues to examine mixed-race relations, but this time he fixes his warmly affectionate gaze on the lives of a group of funny and feckless Anglo-Indians in Calcutta in the early Eighties.

The play is full of echoes, and not just in the sound-effects of modern India, which can be heard outside the walled garden of Tim Hatley's beautifully naturalistic set, complete with jasmine-covered walls. There's an elegiac mood, faintly reminiscent of The Cherry Orchard, as we watch this extended, elderly family fail to face up to the fact that while they have been standing still being more British than the British, the world has moved on. There are also hints of melodrama, not just in the plot-heavy climax, but in the character of Mr Chakravatty, who is immersed in right-wing politicking and, like the wicked landlord of Victorian times, will do anything to turf them all out. Success lies in the generous amount of laughter evoked by Khan-Din's neatly turned writing. Individual characters such as Nicholas Le Prevost's Bertie, a stiffly long-suffering man baffled by his own moustache, are each representative of the Anglo-Indians' conflicting attitudes, but Khan-Din keeps surprising us with their unexpected views. Shades of opinion are laced with wit, as when fiercely defiant Muriel (Madhur Jaffrey) proudly reminds mousy Daphne that she used to work at the Calcutta telephone exchange with Merle Oberon, then called Queenie Roberts. "We were talent-spotted and told we had star quality. Only mine was darker. Too dark."

For all its engaging wit, however, the writing is often dramatically inert and matters are not helped by the direction, which leaves the actors looking unconvinced and, sometimes, unconvincing, particularly in the explosive finale, too much of which is off-stage to have the impact it strives for. None of which seems to matter in the light of eightysomething Sheila Burrell, as Violet. Dressed in home-made Norman Hartnell, obsessed by the bygone days of the Viceroys, and deliciously foul-mouthed, she interrogates Lydia, the English house-guest who has been brought in to save the finances. "Were your family in tea?", she demands, archly. Delighted that her guess is correct, she positively beams. "Yes, you scream plantation."

To 28 August. Box office: 0171-836 6111