Simon Friend, Jenny King, Trafalgar Entertainment, and Gavin Kalin
The Lowry, Salford
November 8-12, 2022, 2hr 25min
(also Leeds Playhouse, Feb 14-18, 2023; Liverpool Playhouse, Mar 21-25)
(also Queen Mary II, Southampton-New York, Dec 15-20, 2022, from £999pp!)
The irony is not lost on us. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel splendidly showcases old people (let’s not beat about the bush here) kicking over the traces, upending the stereotypes and making hay while their sun is still shining.
Meanwhile, the audience is busy telling each other they had thought that that one was dead; that some work has definitely been done there, and how wonderful it is that Rula Lenska still sports that amazing red mane at her age.
Cliches, prejudices and stereotypes about older retired people are still alive and well today, in our conversations and the media, woke or otherwise. So it’s a shame that this latest iteration of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (an excellent example of the modern multimedia cultural brand, with book, film and TV reality show already under its belt) doesn’t always manage to avoid those bear traps despite the play’s subject matter.
A group of retirees, looking to escape the UK for a variety of personal and financial reasons, responds to the dilapidated and almost bankrupt Marigold Hotel’s offer of a cheap bolthole in the sun. We hear of deficiencies of care in Britain’s families and health services, of divorce and failing relationships, of call centre sweatshops. And we watch as hearts and minds open in the heat and light of Bangalore (with the help of the odd gin and tonic.)
The script, written by the original novel’s author, Deborah Moggach, may not be subtle but what a cast, and what deftness of performance.
Hayley Mills (Evelyn), with an ethereal beauty and delicate wistfulness, weaves the threads that tie the group of ageing ex-pat retirees together. Rula Lenska (Madge) does unapologetic sex bomb with huge enthusiasm, while Richenda Carey (Dorothy), Eileen Battye (Jean), Marlene Sidaway (Muriel) and Rekha John-Cheriyan (Mrs Kapoor) are secretive, headmistressy, cantankerous and manipulative respectively.
The men pale somewhat in comparison. There is a loose “men are wimps” theme, but it’s not consistent. Paul Nicholas, as Jean’s husband Douglas, droops just a little too much for comfort, while Andy de la Tour (Norman) is left to mop up pretty much every curmudgeonly, prejudiced trope going. (He also gets the cricket, so not all bad.)
The hotel and call centre staff are, as in life of course, doing all the work to keep these elders in the style to which they gradually become accustomed: in the case of Harmage Singh Kalirai, holding down three jobs (four if you count scene shifting) with skill and remarkable equanimity.
The set, designed by Colin Richmond, is wonderful with its ornate collapsing ceilings, drooping verandah lights, peeling balconies and mismatched chairs.
But oddly the sheer scale of the two-storey edifice does the play something of a disservice, by slowing its progress. A 70-something is unlikely to exit stage left at a trot or skip up and down the stairs; so we were left watching some really quite stately long-distance withdrawals between scenes.
By contrast the closing musical number had the entire cast up and dancing, leaving the audience clapping, laughing and enveloped in a warm, feelgood aura at the close. For a play which begins and ends with a funeral pyre, that is no mean feat.
More info and tickets here