Words by Melissa Blease Playing at the Theatre Royal, Bath until 3 December
Having largely focused on the peaks and troughs of contemporary family life, the impact of divorce and the ebb and flow of long-term relationships throughout a long-established career that began circa 1978, fans of best-selling novelist Deborah Moggach’s work (and they are legion) have grown up reading her books. In 2004, Moggach wasn’t quite at the age when those disconcerting TV adverts selling equity release schemes, incontinence pants, funeral plans, mobility aids and ‘revitalising’ moisturisers had started becoming impactful, but – as is the case for most of us of a similar vintage – they’d probably begun niggling their way into her consciousness, even if only as the subject of the occasional jittery joke.
But rather than gently preparing her loyal readers for declining decrepitude as time and tide ebbed and flowed, Moggach instead assembled a lively handful of fictitious characters of ‘a certain age’ – a glamorous triple divorcee in search of her handsome Maharaja, an ageing lothario and a feisty ex-housekeeper in search of a real home amongst them – and whisked them off to ‘exotic Jaipur retirement complex’ The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, where none of their expectations of the experience are initially met… but all of them eventually wake up to the true meaning of golden years.
Simon Friend’s production of this book-to-film-to-theatre comedy-drama amps up the British stage icon-o-meter to 11, led by the legendary Hayley Mills as gentle, philosophical widow Evelyn, incomparable glamour goddess Rula Lenska in the role of fearlessly astute divorcee Madge and stylish dreamboat Paul Nicholas as laid-back but downtrodden Douglas. Eileen Battye as Douglas’ old school socialist wife Jean does an excellent job of downtrodding him, Andy de la Tour delivers a clever balance of both wit and pathos in his role of cynical Casanova Norman, Richenda Carey artfully keeps enigmatic Dorothy’s secret under her neat linen jacket until the character’s very moving big reveal… and Marlene Sidaway is simply sublime as fabulously feisty octogenarian Muriel.
Of the key supporting characters in the tightly-woven ensemble, Nishad More and Rekha John-Cheriyan (as hotel owners Sonny Kapoor and his mother respectively) are a smoothly shambolic double act fighting to keep the hotel open in the aftermath of father/husband Mr Kapoor’s death despite their differing aims and objectives, with Shila Iqbal as Sonny’s girlfriend Sahani negotiating that tricky bridge between slightly inept boyfriend and domineering mother with aplomb.
It’s a bit of a shame that Graham – a gay man in search of his long-lost Indian love, and a key character in both Moggach’s book and John Madden’s 2011 film – has been written out of the stage version in favour of a slightly more convoluted (but related) storyline. But still, there’s plenty of witty script fireworks and pithy, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them observations on both longstanding and contemporary Anglo-Indian relationships to keep attention levels high, all played out against an evocative 3D set depicting the hotel’s grand but crumbling vibe, supplemented by atmospheric audiovisuals.
Overall, this is slick, uplifting, feel-good theatre at its very best, humane without being overtly saccharine sweet, and lit up by stage superstars that fully deliver on the stardust front. If you’re considering checking out incontinence pants, funeral plans and mobility aids, I recommend that you check into The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel instead.