Review: Lotus Beauty, Hampstead Theatre ★★★★☆

by Chris Dobson

Satinder Chohan’s new play, Lotus Beauty, is all about contrasts: Young and old, beautiful and ugly, funny and tragic. The performance space in Hampstead Downstairs is intimate and simple: Ambient light infuses the set, which depicts a garishly pink beauty salon in Southall. The Ringham Brothers provide an evocative soundtrack, bringing the salon to life whether through the whirring of trains overhead or the pattering of rain outside.

Kiran Landa plays Reita, the owner of the salon and current matriarch of a family fraught with generational tensions and an uneasy love. Reita’s teenage daughter Pinky is vividly brought to life by Anshula Bain, who provides much of the comedy alongside Zainab Hasan as Tanwant, a worker in the salon whose speech is infused with Punjabi words and idioms. The star of the show is Big Dhadhi (Souad Faress), Pinky’s grandmother and Reita’s mother-in-law: With her long white facial hair and pointed toenails, Big Dhadhi is defiant in her unashamedness. Ulrika Krishnamurti, playing salon client Kamal, is not given much to do until the second act, when her narrative takes a poignant turn.

Lotus Beauty at Hampstead Theatre. Photo: Robert Day

The all-female cast is superb, brimming with energy throughout, whether it be in the risqué banter of the play’s first half or the fiery arguments of the second half, when contrasting world views meet in a collision which is both uncomfortable and fascinating to behold. No topic is off-limits, from abortion and menopause to suicide and sexual assault. The flippancy with which such topics are initially brought up in the play may discomfort some audience members, but that was presumably Satinder Chohan’s intention: To shine a light on these difficult issues through unconventional, even comedic means.

Unfortunately, director Pooja Ghai fails to smoothly blend the play’s sitcom-like tone with its heavy themes, resulting in an uneven production which occasionally feels abrasive, such is the rapidity with which it flicks from one mode into the next. When the cast is so strong, this does not matter quite so much, but it still ends up being a bumpy ride. Lotus Beauty, with a running time in excess of two hours, is overly long, and could have benefitted from a tighter focus on the central three family members, plus salon worker Tanwant, who is indispensable as the comic relief.

Lotus Beauty at Hampstead Theatre. Photo: Robert Day

Beyond the emphasis on contrasts, the play is chiefly about hope: The hope which leads a flower to attempt to grow even out of a crack in the pavement; the hope that makes a person start a new life in the UK, even when the odds are stacked against them. The action of Lotus Beauty could take place at any point over the last half century or so, but it also very much speaks to our own times, when government policy itself seeks to dehumanise immigrants and refugees coming to our shores. Although this play is set within the confines of a small beauty salon, it stands as a microcosm for the experiences of women of colour across this island.

Chris Dobson is a freelance journalist from the North of England. He now lives in North London and is passionate about theatre, film and literature.