Its original director, Pooja Ghai, has – since her initial recruitment – been appointed to run Tamasha, one of the most important companies for globally-majority artists. But if it is always good to hear new voices, this piece is not a total success.
Set inside the Lotus Beauty salon, the drama has five female characters, spanning three generations. The boss is Reita, 50, whose main ambition is to earn enough money to buy a bigger house in a wealthier neighborhood with wealthier clients. She also has to watch out for Pinky, her 15-year-old daughter who mixes with local bad boys and gets some salon work experience. Like many teenage girls, she wants to have fun and become famous. And sex. Pinky’s grandmother, the fearsome Big Dhadhi, is Reita’s aging stepmother, who, because she owns the family home, holds the key to Reita’s success. Will Rieta be able to convince BD to sell the house and buy another one?
In addition to this family, there is Tanwant, who is Reita’s assistant and whose ambition is to solve her immigration status and money problems by finding an eligible man, and Kamal, a young mother who is a cleaner and has problems with her own family. At the start of the play, the tone is vigorously comedic, with Tanwant and Pinky street slang getting lots of laughs. Very soon the central theme — what is real beauty, and how can you get it? – is introduced. Since many treatments, such as skin bleaching and hair removal, are painful, a key line is Tanwant’s sardonic observation: “Beauty hurts – you get used to it.”
Amid the Miss Punjab beauty pageant jokes (no bikinis, please), there is darker and more provocative material, such as the use of fetal extract for beauty treatment, which is then balanced by humorous surprises, such as when Pinky jokes about two of her classmates resolving their unwanted pregnancies by having “fetus-deletuses”. Central is the symbol of the lotus – a flower that truly thrives in mud – and the idea that beauty is born out of pain and ugliness. But while the theme of true beauty that is deeply about dropping our social masks is welcome, and there’s some additional material here about race and prejudice, the play meanders a little too much in its second half, more tragic.
The problem is, Chohan is so concerned with giving each woman a chance to speak her truth that the pacing slows as each takes turns diving into her pain. While this gives the show a panoramic feel, it also suggests in a rather ominous way that all women are victims of their men. What is missing is a more uplifting sense of female agency, as well as camaraderie, and a more incisive critique of some of the clichés of portraying the British Asian experience. While the playwright’s language, especially in the comedic sequences, is vigorous and often delightfully hilarious, the plot is a bit predictable and there’s a distinct sense that too many problems are crammed into the story.
Ghai’s production, designed by Rosa Maggiora, tries, not always successfully, to find a good balance between comedy and tragedy, even if it honors the material, in particular its most difficult moments: the sequence which breaks the taboos on the undressing of the body of an old woman is breathtaking. The cast is uniformly excellent, doing full justice to the linguistic range and variety of the text, from Kiran Landa’s chic English Reita to Anshula Bain’s street smart Pinky, with Souad Faress (BD), Zainab Hasan (Tanwant) and Ulrika Krishnamurti (Kamal) representing the mixed languages of different migrants as well as their individual characters. Lotus Beauty has many enjoyable moments, but could have been improved by a sharper plot.