Sunday, 20 November 2022

REVIEW: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel at the New Victoria Theatre, Woking

Deborah Moggach’s book These Foolish things inspired a surprise hit 2012 film starring Judi Dench and Maggie Smith and a 2016-2020 TV series featuring Wayne Sleep, Paul Nicholas, and Selina Scott. Both benefited from placing these familiar faces in the actual setting of an Indian Hotel and showing their experiences in the wonderful culture around it. She has now adapted her book for the stage for a UK Tour until June 2023 with 22 more venues ahead as well as a transatlantic crossing on the Queen Mary in December before the publicity claims a West End Transfer. The challenge in this latest version is to capture the heat and cultural atmosphere of Bangalore in a single set of the hotel courtyard without seeing the places around it that feature in the video versions.

The characters on stage are the same as in the film and it is difficult to shake off the memories of that stella cast of Dames, but the touring cast has a good pedigree too and after a slow start, they establish themselves in their own right. The stage version may rely a little too much on stereotypical British old-age pensioners abroad and cultural references to Delhi belly and the Indian caste system as a shorthand to establish the characters and their pasts in an alien setting but once it settles down and the relationships are established the second half explodes into an emotionally engaging and touching exploration of the challenges of growing old and the attitudes required to enjoy the benefits of all their life experience. Those older audience members will respond to the cast of elderly pensioners while young members will respond to the call centre workers who ultimately unlock the emotions. 

At the centre of the story and giving it real heart is the delightful Hayley Mills as Evelyn (the Judi Dench character). She may be 76 but she is young at heart and still emits a gently enticing aura that wins over all around her. It is a magnificent well-judged performance that charms and moves us reflecting her experience from her wonderful film, stage, and TV career. Rula Lenska plays Madge (the Celia Imrie character) a feisty cougar, who has seen off three husbands, on the lookout for a younger man with a fantastic head of red hair and a long, elegant look and a good line in cutting putdowns. She is strong and powerful and a formidable force that is bound to get her way. Marlene Sidaway is Muriel (the Maggie Smith character), described as “a poor old bugger, half dead already” and too timid to go outside the hotel grounds.

Eileen Battye (who played Anna in the King and I opposite Yul Brynner in 1979) plays Jean (Penelope Wilton in the film) the dominant wife of Douglas (played by a rather subdued Paul Nicholas) usually seen marching across the stage on the way to exploring the world outside the hotel with her husband following meekly and obediently behind. While Andy de la tour plays the aged Lothario Norman while hiding a guilty secret that once revealed melts his unsympathetic appearance. Interestingly the character Dorothy (played by Richenda Carey) was not in the original film and presents a mysterious upright and aloof character who disappears off on her own mission without engaging with the other residents but once the truth is revealed provides a strong emotional reaction and insight into the historical relationship between Britain and India.

The young cast is led wonderfully by Nishad More as the son of the hotel owner, Sonny, a cheerfully incompetent but energetic hotel manager who charms the guests and the audience as we see him struggle to reconcile his devotion to his mother played by Rekha John-Cheriyan and his friend Sahani (Shila Iqbal). The scenes where the Indian culture bursts onto the stage at a Funeral and a wedding or in the treatment of hotel staff provide a hint of the cultural world and differences outside. 

The staging is impressive with an evocative two-storey courtyard designed by Colin Richmond (although on the New Victoria stage at Woking the masking in the wings was very poor) and the lighting by Oliver Fenwick did not really capture the heat of the Indian daytime sun. Lucy Bailey's direction has to cope with the short vignette scenes of the first forty-five minutes to establish the characters and the regular resetting of chairs on the forestage but in the second half draws the elements together as they reveal each of their own truths and come together as a group of friends so that despite the sadness, it becomes a joyous and uplifting celebration of life and reminds us all that it never too late in life to try something new.

Review by Nick Wayne

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: Stalls, Row E | Price of Ticket: £46.50

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