If there are any doubts about Yorkshire’s place as host to the International Indian Film Academy Awards, then Bollywood Jane, West Yorkshire Playhouse’s new production and part of the IIFA Fringe, should remove them. Author Amanda Whittington describes her fusion of gritty Northern drama and cinema fantasy as “The Wizard of Oz meets A Taste of Honey”.
Fair enough – and she could have added The Smallest Show on Earth, since Bollywood Jane deals with the struggles of the delightfully inept to keep a historic cinema open in the face of almost total audience neglect. Jane, a disaffected and rather childish 16-year-old, moves to Manningham in Bradford with her inadequate, violently temperamental mother. After their latest quarrel, she escapes to the company of Dini whose enthusiasm for Bollywood films (and the Star Cinema, run by his friend Aamir) soon takes her over.
The story moves towards its happy ending with the assistance of magic or fate or maybe just luck, though to Whittington’s credit it is not the happy ending most of us would have predicted. More predictable are the scenes of social realism, a rather generic view of the urban underclass. Whittington crams in too many issues – promiscuity, homelessness, homosexuality, abortion – without being able to treat them more than superficially. She can at least claim that the sudden resolution of all the problems is in the spirit of Bollywood.
The strident scenes between Jane and her mother Kate (Katherine Dow Blyton) are the least successful part of Nikolai Foster’s impressive production. Nichola Burley, never convincing or completely clear in her sullenness, brings grace and charm to the emerging Bollywood Jane and is well matched by Darren Kuppan’s witty and likeable Dini – two very promising professional stage debuts. Avin Shah is nicely understated as Aamir, the hopeless businessman with the perfect mastery of business jargon.
The production is a triumph for designers and choreographer. Zoobin Surty achieves wonders with two 20-strong teams of amateurs who, in turn, take on chorus duties, including four spectacular dance routines as Jane’s dreams of Bollywood take concrete form.
Colin Richmond is not only responsible for the lavish costumes for the dance sequences (with Jane herself bridging the two worlds in plain top and jeans), but, with Guy Hoare (lighting) and Mic Pool (sound and video), creates the changing moods of the production in settings ranging from the decayed splendour of the cinema foyer, complete with chandelier, to the bright primary colours and starry heavens of Bollywood.