The House of In Between (Theatre Royal, Stratford East)

Worthwhile and well staged Indian drama let down by a flat script

Being ‘about’ something is not enough. Narrative drama also needs a sound theatrical structure, and in that respect Sevan K. Greene’s informative new play about India’s little-known Hijra community falls short.

The House of In Between shines a spotlight on the so-called ‘third gender’, a mix of naturally intersexed people plus males who have undergone voluntary surgery via the rite known as nirvaan. Full marks for educational content (I learnt a lot); shame about the writing.

Uma (Esh Alladi) rules her bickering Hijra clan with firm intent but little power, since their limited income from dancing, begging and prostitution is eroded by necessary bribes to the neighbourhood police. Uma is haunted by a distressing event from the past, and the arrival of a mysterious young boy, Dev, pushes her dysfunctional household to breaking point.

Amidst all the kind-of-cross-gender casting it’s this new cuckoo in the nest who’s problematic. As played in twitchily boyish fashion by Lucie Shorthouse the youngster could be anything from 12 to 20; yet a nasty event that happens to Dev means his true age is something we really need to know, however mysterious he may be and notwithstanding the play’s predictable final twist. A script editor, moreover, should have queried the boy’s disconcertingly grown-up turns of phrase during key emotional scenes.

Saggy, blunt-edged episodes needed pruning and sharpening before The House of In Between saw the light of day. Clan members gossip inconsequentially about other characters once they’ve left the stage, while an episode in a downtown coffee house, whose sole apparent function is to hold up the action, is capped by a pause for a forgotten handbag that’s been slotted in to cover a scene change.

No blame for the play’s shortcomings attaches to the actors. Vivid work by Ashraf Ejjbair, Akash Heer and the elegant Sri Lankan-born actress Shalani Peiris does much to shore up Greene’s material, while Gary Wood as the most troubled Hijra sets the stage alight with star quality. Vikash Bhai is a deadly presence as three separate characters from the outside world, none of them savoury, all sharply delineated.

Pitched in the manner of a soap opera, The House of In Between is light entertainment that aims to shock; a social commentary that reduces characters to stereotypes. The playwright’s lingua franca is standard English (he leaves local colour to designer Diego Pitarch‘s fabulously saturated hues and Tapio Snellman‘s projections) while Pooja Ghai‘s direction takes its cue from the voice writing and favours north London camp. There are plenty of audience-pleasing gags, including an inevitable one-liner about call centres, but it’s Seeta Patel‘s spellbinding dances that save the day and, while they last, the play.

The House of In Between runs at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East until 30 April.