In Muslim culture henna is given mystical attributes. As well as symbolising fertility, it is used to decorate brides and to ward off evil. Concerned that the heritage of past generations might be forgotten, author Rani Moorthy uses the substance to link a series of tales that explain to 13 year old Nasreen (Rochi Rampal) how her mother Saheeda (Bharti Patel) changs from a mischievous child to a fretful woman whose fears force her family to adopt a nomadic existence.
If Handful of Henna has a fault, it is that its duration is a little too short to explain fully the genesis of Saheeda. Her story ends at the point where she marries and we never really learn how that event contributed to her development. But this is a minor flaw in a rich and evocative tale that lyrically conveys the joys of childhood and contrasts them with the horrors.
In an effective piece of storytelling we learn that the chores undertaken by Saheeda and other children included being lowered into the village wells to risk their lives by cleaning out the debris. It is clear, however, that these terrors pale in comparison with a replacement for a loved parent – the legendary evil stepmother even makes an appearance.
Although Rampal is older than 13 years of age, she is able to convince in the role by showing the sulky self-righteousness that teens have whenever they are, well, awake. Even so she does not alienate the audience and allows Nazreen to grow and develop sympathy for her mother.
The strong difference in accents make Patel an unlikely parent for Rampal but that aside her performance is excellent showing how the recollection of Saheeda’s childlike pleasures make her able to cope with her adult fears. Nimmi Harasgama and Sohm Kapila provide a comedy double act that makes sure the show satisfies all tastes.
Karen Simpson directs with great imagination. Rachana Jadhav's set design is basic but adaptable so that a stack of boxes becomes a car and the tent structure that acts as the wedding venue serves also as a wall that gives us a classic farcical sequence in which the friends constantly miss each other. Although Simpson is confident with the comedy scenes, she also uses Jon Nicholls' music to enhance the power of the more reflective sequences. Best of all is the use of a larger than life puppet to represent the wicked stepmother.
Handful of Henna is a charming play that manages to be both moving and very funny in equal measures.