Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance is one of the best of all contemporary Indian novels but Tamasha’s touring production – returning to Hampstead, where it was seen early last year, with four cast changes – is one of the clunkiest, most reductive, stage adaptations you could hope not to see.

The sense of time and history that imbues the story of the widowed Parsi woman Dina Dalai, her two Hindi tailors, Ishvar and Omprakesh, and her callow nephew, Maneck, is compressed into a succession of trite short scenes that often use Mistry’s dialogue but are deprived of the beautiful pungency of the narrative setting, the arc of the novel’s reach.

The city by the sea, almost certainly Bombay, or Mumbai as it is now known, is hardly conjured by eight hard-working actors and a couple of puppets strewn about an ugly, cheap-looking design (by Sue Mayes) of intersecting, sand-coloured ramps, dominated by a glowering portrait of Mrs Indhira Ghandi.

The great social upheavals during the mid-1970s State of Emergency declared by Mrs Ghandi’s government – the destruction of villages, the enforcement of a sterilisation programme – are implied but feebly enacted. A rush of wind blows litter across the stage, or doctors are silhouetted behind a gauze curtain while poor Omprakesh is snipped then castrated.

But the psychological displacement of the characters, their unbounded optimism and the sheer degradation of their circumstances, is taken for granted. Ishvar and Omprakesh (Sagar Arya and Amit Sharma) – uncle and nephew – are the most delightful, and tragic, of double acts in Mistry’s prose, but their scavenging survival instincts and poignant descent into beggardom is communicated only on a level of simple comedy, devoid of anguish.

Sudha Bhuchar is an elegant Dina Dalai, but the character’s inertia does not explain the inner sadness. Her husband’s accident on the bicycle is mysteriously referred to, and although her difficult relationship with her brother Nusswan (Tony Jayawardena) is eventually comprehensible as he goes along with the repressive political measures, there is none of the circular contextualising of the novel to deepen and indeed explain the bitter reality of what we are watching at any one moment.

Kristine Landon-Smith’s production does not exactly help by being underpowered and listlessly acted. Divian Ladwa’s Manek has a certain spry eagerness, but you get no sense of this boy’s yearnings or dreams, idealistic and erotic, or the important back history of his life as the small shop owner’s son whose family soft drinks business has been decimated by the roads built through the mountains.

It might be thought unfair to complain about an avowedly small-scale production failing to imply the expansiveness of the source book. But creative imagination knows no physical restrictions unless hemmed in by low level literal aspirations. The highlights in a drab evening are provided by Rina Fatania’s colourful, bustling Mrs Gupta and the shocking sideshow of the Monkey Man (Taylan Halici) abusing a child (played by a puppet) before tying her to a long, twirling stick for a piece of street theatre. At such rare moments, Tamasha really did play Mistry for me.

- Michael Coveney