Hampstead Theatre, London NW3
Opened 16 January, 2006

In 1997, British-Asian theatre company Tamasha presented A Tainted Dawn about India's birth in strife fifty years earlier, as independence and partition came hand in hand. Now they have turned their attention to the other taint on that country's history, the "State of Emergency" under Indira Gandhi in 1975-7. Once again, the production has been worked up through a devising process, although this time the source material is specific: Rohinton Mistry's 1995 novel A Fine Balance.

Mistry's story follows widow Dina Dalal, trying to live an independent life in the city by running a small subcontracted tailoring business, and the two stitchers she recruits, Ishvar and his nephew Omprakash, driven away from their home village by the local Congress Party gauleiter. The despotic regime of Gandhi and her son Sanjay permeates gradually through all events, from the most trivial (Ish and Om being late for work because their train was delayed, even though officially all trains run on perfect time during the Emergency) to the most horrific: the shanty district in which the stitchers live is bulldozed without notice, and even state-sanctioned castration is used as a tool of petty local feuding.

There is a lot to cram in the book runs to more than 600 pages and Kristine Landon-Smith's production ultimately falls prey to one of the basic pitfalls of adapting a big novel for the stage: it tells the story, covering all the events it can, at the expense of going deeply enough into the characters to engage us fully through those events. Sudha Bhuchar, Rehan Sheikh and Amit Sharma give sensitive performances at the head of the eight-strong ensemble, but there is little sign of the characters' inner lives, and sometimes it feels as if they are being hurried along to the next grim landmark. At the end of the interval I quipped to a colleague, "They've done the slum clearances now for the forced sterilisations," little knowing how prophetic I was being. As always with Tamasha, this is a committed production, visually simple yet striking in Sue Mayes' design. But as for Mistry's tapestry of how the Emergency affected individuals' lives and relationships, here we see those lives only from the outside.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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