LAST DANCE AT DUM DUM
New Ambassadors Theatre, London WC2
Opened 14 July, 1999

Ayub Khan-Din thought he was Anglo-Indian until it was explained to him that the term referred not to British-born people of south Asian descent, but to those of mixed blood on the subcontinent. Khan-Din's second play (following the wild success of his East Is East) centres on a group of such people: a knot of elderly folk left high and dry by independence, banded together in a kind of big-house "grey colony" in a suburb of 1981 Calcutta, scorned by "pure" Indians and in turn feeling betrayed and disowned by both them and the English before them.

Khan-Din can write beautifully timed and weighted lines. When Violet (a delightful Sheila Burrell), obsessed with saving discarded portraits, busts and so forth of old viceroys, monarchs and generals, announces her latest cause, she is rebuked, "Violet, you will not lash yourself to another piece of statuary!" When neighbour, creditor and Hindu supremacist Mr Chakravatty speaks admiringly of Hitler's draughtsmanship, new resident Lydia remarks coolly, "I didn't know. Then again I suppose one wouldn't. Swamped, as we were, by his many other talents." The author skilfully creates the kind of atmosphere in which, for instance, when house-boy and former cabaret drag-queen Elliot protests that he cannot do an impromptu turn because "I'm too shy", actor Paul Bazely can clock the audience for a Frankie Howerd-like instant without even breaking the dramatic mood.

Such phrasing and characterisation shore up the occasional weakness in plotting. Madhur Jaffrey sensitively inhabits the challenging role of Muriel, stricken by a brain tumour and as bewildered and frightened as any of her victims by the fiery rages she habitually flies into. Diana Fairfax is serenely in control as Lydia, although the possibilities are under-explored of the tensions and reconciliations caused by her arrival at Dum Dum as someone of full English blood. Stuart Burge's production pitches well the residents' dealings with the smooth, bigoted villainy of Chakravatty until the confused final scene: caught up in communal rioting which he and his cohorts have prematurely provoked ("I told them we weren't ready for this yet!" he says; emphasis added), Chakravatty first takes refuge with his elderly neighbours (allowing them to show moral decency in harbouring him) but then, for a broth of hastily sketched motives, flees them into the hands of the mob. Khan-Din's message is direct enough that hybridisation may be uncomfortable, but oppression or isolation are no solutions but he over-whips his horse in the home straight after running a fresh and accomplished race for most of the two-hour evening.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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