The world premiere of Rafta, Rafta... brought some Bollywood charm to the National Theatre last night (26 April 2007, previews from 18 April) when it joined the rep in the Lyttelton Theatre, leaving opening night audiences and critics rolling in the aisles.
The comedy about a young couple unable to consummate their marriage while living in the Bolton terraced house of the groom’s parents is an adaptation by Ayub Khan-Din of Bill Naughton’s 1963 northern domestic comedy All in Good Time. Khan-Din sets the story amongst a modern British-Asian family.
Khan-Din is best known for East Is East, which was also made into a hit Brit flick. Rafta, Rafta... is his first stage work in more than ten years. It’s directed by NT artistic director Nicholas Hytner, with a cast featuring Meera Syal and Harish Patel, star of more than 80 Bollywood films and a regular at the Indian National Theatre, who makes his London stage debut in the production.
While critics praised the arrival of such a warm-hearted and amusing new Asian play, some had doubts about how well Naughton’s “old-fashioned” comedy suited the demands of Khan-Din’s new modern time and place, particularly in its tidily imposed happy ending. However, the comic delights of Hytner’s colourful production and his vivacious cast proved distraction enough for most, with extra plaudits reserved for larger-than-life Bollywood import Harish Patel.
Michael Coveney for Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “In some ways, the Asian treatment works even better than did the Young Vic’s glorious reclamation of Hobson's Choice some years ago, but that show is the template for re-casting northern comedy. And Hytner’s recent deployment of Yorkshire Asians in the arranged marriage plot of The Man of Mode has clearly extended the cultural possibilities of updating the classics. Harish Patel, one of nature’s obvious Bottoms with his wobbly head, exquisite gestures and bountiful good nature, is partnered by an impressive and slyly humane Meera Syal as his wife. The young couple are beautifully played by Ronny Jhutti and Rokhsaneh Ghawam-Shahidi.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “Ayub Khan-Din's success lies in integrating Bill Naughton's plot into a vivid portrait of Indian family life. The play has all the virtues, and a few of the vices, of popular comedy. It makes one laugh out loud but at the same time resolves matters a shade easily: no sooner have the newlyweds achieved the wished-for consummation than they are offered a house of their own. And even Mr Dutt's obsession with his lost friend is turned into a neat punchline: when Mrs Dutt says that, on the Blackpool honeymoon the two men even went on the tunnel of love together, her husband quickly retorts: ‘We thought they were speedboats’. But one's cavils are overcome by the brio of Nicholas Hytner's production and the vivacity of the cast.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) – “The only serious problem with Nicholas Hytner’s production is the Lyttelton stage. The blend of bedrooms, living room and kitchen that Tim Hatley has built on it are too large and comfy for a terrace house said to be poky and meant to be claustrophia-inducing. Nevertheless, Khan-Din still manages to convey his main point. There are some fine supporting performances: from Ronny Jhutti as sensitive, truculent Atul, Rokhsaneh Ghawam-Shahidi as confused Vina and, especially, Meera Syal as Dutt’s wife, a shrewd and doughty matriarch who radiates both near-permanent exasperation at and deep devotion for her husband. And, given Harish Patel’s performance, that’s understandable. Watch him cavort excitedly about after the wedding, dominating the proceedings and putting down the son who likes classical music. Watch his slow, baffled reaction as Vina’s parents discreetly reveal their virgin daughter’s married secrets. Watch him awkwardly reach out to the son who has good reason not to like or trust him. And, at a possibly sentimental denouement, watch him quietly sob. Lucky Bollywood. Lucky us.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “Director Nicholas Hytner's production brims with social colour, but cannot disguise the fact that the hilarious comedy of morals and manners degenerates into an accusatory, confessional drama, with a happy ending imposed. Khan-Din, who made his name with the film East Is East, shows a flair for situation comedy but becomes strait-jacketed by Naughton's old-fashioned plot. Rafta, Rafta... hits its comic targets but peddles discredited and prejudiced fairytales about homosexuality. Thematically it beggars belief."
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “(Ayub Khan-Din) has another tremendous success on his hands with Rafta, Rafta, a superb piece of popular theatre that has you laughing uproariously at one moment and surprised by tears the next. It fills the whole theatre with an unforgettable sense of communal warmth. And in the current climate, what a delight it is to see an Asian play that has nothing whatever to do with Islamic extremism and suicide bombers. This generous play must surely tour to all those northern towns where the BNP is on the march. It would do wonders for race relations.”
- by Malcolm Rock