When casting around for a succinct phrase to describe the latest offering from the Moti Roti company, One Night, the words "quart into a pint pot" refuse to be dismissed. This is a show in which themes and presentational styles overlap, collide and unfold into one another in a manner which acquires coherence with hindsight, but at the time is frankly bewildering.
We first see harassed film critic Kalum (Kriss Dosanjh), before dissolving into a scene in a house of courtesans. It eventually becomes apparent, firstly that this is a film Kalum is watching on the VCR in his study (I suppose the Bollywood-style playback song-and-dance sequence should have given that game away), later that he wrote its script, and finally that it is an idealised revision of events in his own early life in India. Cut, again, to a gathering of graduating students, at which Munni (Zitta Sattar) – who turns out to be Kalum's daughter (are you following this?) – is at the apex of a triangular relationship involving, well, the same two actors who play the courtesans' clients.
That last observation is a red herring, but until two hours later one is hard pressed to know for certain. Prabjot Dolly Dhingra's script is adroit at feeding us information gradually rather than presenting it all on a plate. The difficulties arise from the sheer volume of stuff in there. The play aims to address the semi-classical world of courtesans, where love is at once courtly and commercial; the limbo of a first immigrant generation, torn both culturally and geographically between India and England; and contemporary youth, for whom Indian culture manifests not in millennia of heritage but more immediately in the peculiarities of their parents' generation.
The staging also veers from youthful exuberance to middle-aged, middle-class circumscription to artificial dazzle, complete with incense and fountains. Occasionally worlds, and playing modes, merge – if anyone can explain what that absurd disco sequence is doing in the final quarter-hour of the show, I shall be most grateful. What seems to have happened, though, is that director Keith Khan and his creative collaborators have concerned themselves with the overall picture at the expense of individual performances. Either actors have been left to fend for themselves in whatever vein feels most comfortable to them, or Khan has simply been unable to smooth out the bumps between, for instance, the brash naturalness of Sattar, the muted angst of Dosanjh and the mile-broad cartooning of Laila Khan as Kalum's helpmeet Leela. All of these styles go beyond mere characterisation, to the heart of the performances, to the point where, although sharing the same scene, they might be in three different plays.
One Night is a tremendously rich show; there is always more than enough to look at and listen to. Why all these ingredients are present, and whether they can all fit into the same theatrical box, are separate questions.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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