Wah! Wah! Girls
Tanika Gupta, writing book and lyrics, aims to register the changing feminist and social dynamic in India in an East End setting: a runaway girl from Leeds, Sita, an aspiring dancer, finds her way to a Newham club owned by Soraya, with whose son, Kabir, she falls in love.
This narrative is conjured by Bindi, a jolly, audience-baiting addict of Bollywood movies, who switches on her flat screen television in defiance of her husband’s orders - and the show begins.
Bindi, like Sita and Soraya, who has a secret past in India, represents a feminist kick against tradition and repressive menfolk; this finds its greatest expression not in the show’s narrative, which needs tightening, but in the musical numbers, which mix some Bollywood standards with lively and affecting new songs by Gupta and composer Niraj Chag.
And the stage explodes in a riot of Kathak disco dance moves every time the company wriggles their wrists and ankles, or rips into a haunch-flaunting, sideways shimmy at the audience. Soraya’s club, and her “Wah Wah girls” (“wah wah” is the sound of approbation made in India instead of applause), is an update of courtesans dancing for wealthy patrons in the ancient Murja style.
Emma Rice’s production hasn’t yet meshed all the elements to their full dynamic potential - this might happen by the time show moves on to Stratford East in September - but there is no faulting the performances of Rebecca Grant (alternating with Natasha Jayatileke) as a scintillating Sita or Sophiya Haque, who combines erotic sensuality with proud defiance as Soraya.
Keith Khan’s design combines painted front cloths in Vicarage Road (just around the corner from the Theatre Royal in Stratford East) with day-glo Bollywood vistas (lit by Malcolm Rippeth), cleverly overlapping one location with the other, a process of amalgamation personified in Rina Fatania’s crossover from Bindi to “wah wah.”
Good support, too, from Tariq Jordan as lover boy Kabir, Delroy Atkinson as an African Prince Charming and Tony Jayawardena as a grumpy shopkeeper complaining about Poles taking all the jobs. The dazzling choreography is a joint effort between specialists in Bollywood and Kathak, Javed Sanadi and Gauri Sharma Tripathi.