It’s not often that a set drifts onto the stage to a round of applause, but this was indeed the first unexpected highlight of last night’s preview of Rafta, Rafta… at the National Theatre.
The West End Whingers felt at home at once; they too are (perhaps surprisingly) believers in giving positive feedback where it’s due and have been known to clap at the sight of a particularly high wig, an impressive attempt at unobtrusiveness by a latecomer, the sight of a housecoat on the stage or simply unexpectedly generous legroom. This occasionally mystifies the performers, but we feel it our duty to give praise where praise is due.
Anyway, Phil couldn’t remember a set receiving a warm hand since the days when he patronised The Theatre Royal Brighton, but then every set would get that treatment. You would also get Hazel Dorling (even the BFI doesn’t know who she is Phil) on the piano playing you into the theatre, and playing God Save the King at the end. Ah happy days.
Anyway, to fast-forward about 100 years. Rafta, Rafta… has an interesting pedigree. It started life as Bill Naughton‘s 1963 play All in Good Time which was turned into one of Phil’s favourite sixties films, The Family Way. East is East author Ayub Khan-Din has adapted it, setting it in an Asian community in Bolton with an Asian cast (bar one token white).
It opens on the post-wedding celebrations of Bollywood fan Atul Dutt (Ronny Jhutti) and Vina Patel (Rokhsaneh Ghawam-Shahidi) in the home of Dutt’s parents’ tiny (but over-decorated) two-up two-down where they are to live until they can afford a home of their own. Actually, this house is rather large (being built to fill the Lyttelton stage) and each room could amply hold the Whingers dustbins of empty wine bottles several times over. But we digress.
Anyway, things don’t go well in the bedroom department and the couple – forced to continue the happy newlywed charade – begin to drift apart. Actually, it’s largely a comedy (as you might have expected from the presence of Meera Syal as Atul’s mother Lopi) with some drama thrown in.
It didn’t start promisingly. The first act takes an awful long time to get going and the Whingers’ humble advice to über-busy director Nicholas Hytner is to shear about 20 minutes off the opening scenes which are under-written and serve to establish what could easily be portrayed in the time it takes to open a bottle of Zinfandel (Phil’s record is 2.7 seconds, including consumption of contents).
But to get back to the set. It is suitably over-decorated (as British received opinion on Indian taste dictates) with extensive flock, brocade and clashing colours schemes which put Phil in mind of a cross between his local Tandoori and one of Andrew’s shirts. From the front stalls the sight-lines (for key scenes in the upper level rooms) left something to be desired. Presumably the senior Dutts were getting into a bed, but the Whingers were forced to unleash their imaginations to picture the presumably florid counterpane.
One very satisfying result for the Whingers: following their constant mentions of inflated programme prices, Mr Hytner has apparently taken note on this occasion, reducing the fee from the usual £3 to just £2. The Whingers have their own theories to explain why he’s chosen this particular production to effect a reduction, but they couldn’t possibly comment. They’ll be watching Mr H very closely to see if this is permanent.
The cast are mostly excellent, but we concur with Terri that the evening belongs to one man – Bollywood actor Harish Patel who plays Atul’s father and is actually the epicentre of the play. Patel dominates every scene he is in (in a good way), drives the drama of the piece regardless of his role within it, and displays a breathtaking versatility to be by turns insufferable, vulnerable, funny, sad but always engaging.
Phil had occasional problems catching everything he said, but it’s to Patel’s credit that Phil laughed even when he couldn’t make out the words behind the gags. Patel has a sense and timing which puts him in the top league of comic acting, even when he is simply displaying the silent confusion of a man out of his emotional depth.
If Rafta, Rafta… doesn’t appeal to you see it anyway for the privelege of seeing this extraordinary performer.