Uplifting and delightful version

Theatre: THE MAD WOMAN OF OUR TOWN Watermans Art Centre, London
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The Independent Culture
This delightful version, translated to the Punjab, is not the first attempt to make a musical of La Folle de Chaillot, Giraudoux's lyrical fantasy about a batty-wise old woman who saves Paris from the destructive designs of an oil company by walling up the entire board of directors in the city's sewers. You can see why the subject would appeal to Broadway, which has never allowed its own rampant commercialism to stop it from making a dishonest buck by championing unmaterialistic dreamers. The cloying, coy title alone - Dear World (Dear God!) - is enough to put you off Jerry Herman's 1969 version, while the main song to have survived from The Mad Woman of Central Park West represents Leonard Bernstein's least fortunate "brains-are-overrated-what-counts-is-heart" number in which he seems to want to hug the whole planet.

There's nothing phoney, though, about The Mad Woman of Our City which the company has brought to the Watermans Arts Centre as part of LIFT - or at least nothing that can be spotted by a Western eye and ear ignorant of Punjabi language and culture. Here the mad woman is not some warbling crone, but Ramanjit Kaur's bewitchingly cranky child-woman who sweeps into the colourful, bustling bazaar of Act I borne on a cycle rickshaw and shaking a hand bell. With her radiant, gap-toothed smile and eyes that effortlessly register roguishness and anguish, she's a creature who alternates elusively between the earthy and the other-worldly. Her antagonist is Ravindar Happy's fat-faced, comically corrupt-looking prospector, who claims to have detected gold under the city.

It would be accurate to call the show a play with song and wrist-twirling, skirt-swirling traditional dance, rather than a "musical", since the numbers are predominately performed by the crowd, and the B V Karanth music, with its hypnotically insistent rhythms, ranging from an almost rap-like chorus to folk scenes, is mercifully unadulterated by pop. It's uplifting precisely because there's no straining for "uplift"; the mad girl's triumph over the forces of corruption climax not in an assertive "I-am-what-I-am" personal anthem, nor a glutinous hymn to togetherness, but in a spectacular, earth- flinging ritual of cleansing. It's the collective, not the individual, which this show celebrates.

It's a shame that traffic noise prevented director Neelam Man Singh Chowdhry from carrying out the original plan of presenting the first half al fresco, contrasting the outdoor world of Act I with the curtained hermeticism of the mad girl's home in Act II. But the unsynthetic charm of this company - with Kuldeep Sharma turning in a delightful double as both the ragpicker and the comically officious, khaki shorts-wearing policeman - make spending a couple of hours indoors no great sacrifice.

n To Sat (Bookings 0181-568 1176)