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Lotus Beauty at Hampstead Theatre – review

Satinder Chohan's play is set in a Southall beauty parlour

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The cast of Lotus Beauty
© Robert Day

Satinder Kaur Chohan's new play, which captures the kinds of intimate conversations that happen in a beauty parlour for South Asian women, has been 15 years in the making. It was prompted in 2007 by a mental health crisis that led to a spate of female railway suicides in Southall, West London, as well as other large Asian communities. The show is devastatingly sad, but quite often amusing too.

Lotus Beauty introduces us to Reita (Kiran Landa), the salon's socially-mobile owner who dreams of upgrading her life; to her teen daughter Pinky (Anshula Bain), whose London upbringing gives her different values to her mum; and to Reita's mother-in-law Big Dhadhi (Souad Faress), who embodies the eternal contest for control over female bodies. Then there's Tanwant (Zainab Hasan), a salon employee whose hopes of a passport marriage highlight the uncertain lives of migrant women; and client Kamal (Ulrika Krishnamurti), whose loneliness speaks to the play's themes of female oppression. Each of the women's lives are governed by how good others think they look – a fraught question when cultural ideas of beauty may differ wildly between, say, India and the UK.

Their stories unfold through chat, gossip, and argument. This repartee was inspired by Chohan's own experiences of salons in Southall, and is made zingy by director Pooja Ghai. Slang terms from Hindi, Punjabi, and Urdu are all heard. The play feels like an answer to Inua Ellams' celebrated 2017 Barber Shop Chronicles, which used grooming-salon banter to explore masculinity in the UK's African diaspora. In Lotus Beauty, the men are nowhere to be seen, but patriarchal power is felt all around.

Hasan is especially effervescent in the role of happy-go-lucky, husband-hunting Tanwant. But she is not the play's only moving figure. The grandmother, Big Dhadhi, proves a big surprise. At first, she seems a light-hearted inclusion; popping up in the salon with exaggerative facial hair – which she refuses any attempt to remove, due to her Sikh faith. Later, she delivers the most affecting moment by retelling the dehumanising experiences she faced during a journey to settle in Britain.

A flipside of the play's ambitious storytelling is that its overall direction of travel isn't always very clear. Not every theme that's introduced gets fully explored – whether that's Reita's apparent preoccupation with the menopause, or even the issue of colourism, which is dangled then withdrawn in an opening scene that shows characters putting on creams to whiten their skin tones.

Taken as a whole, though, Lotus Beauty is a poignant look at the human need to fit in – set against the backdrop of racism, sexism, and violence. Its triumph is to create a believable ‘safe space' in which women can talk and share stories – despite their different ages and backgrounds. Indeed, the parlour is practically a character in its own right; bedecked in bright pink thanks to Rosa Maggiora's lurid set design. Appointments available at Hampstead's downstairs theatre until 18 June.