Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: Behind the Beautiful Forevers; the Realness

Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: Behind the Beautiful Forevers; the Realness

Article excerpt

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Olivier, in rep until 13 April

The Realness

Hackney Downs Studios, until 20 December

Bombay is now called Mumbai by everyone bar its residents, whose historic name (from the Portuguese for 'beautiful cove') has been discarded for them by their betters. Near the airport a huge advertising board bearing the slogan 'Beautiful Forever' overlooks an alp of discarded junk where homeless paupers crouching in tin shacks toil and slave around the clock to earn a meagre bowl of grey, rat-licked gruel.

Welcome to the National's latest attempt to cheer us all up. The verminous scrapheap teems with cocky adolescents, witty thieves, evil moneylenders and struggling mums. Their stories interweave but the main thread involves a foul-mouthed clash between some shirty Muslims and a crippled prostitute, living in a nearby tea chest, who gets doused in petrol and torched. Murder or suicide? A side plot develops in the communal crap-house where two bookish schoolgirls squat in the darkness discussing Congreve's characterisation and the poor narrative structure of Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway .

Is that true? Apparently so. Every detail of this show is drawn from a bestselling book by Katherine Boo, an American poverty ogler. And Britain's top dialogue wonk, David Hare, has transmitted Boo's findings to the stage. It's absorbing, powerful and harrowing, in a soapy kind of way, and it successfully conveys the horrors of a society where medicine, education and justice are denied to the underprivileged and the skint. Rufus Norris, heir apparent to Nicholas Hytner, directs the material efficiently enough but he hasn't learnt how to manipulate the Olivier's sprawling stage area. Ignore it, mate. Build a new space within the ballpark and shove it up the front. Works a treat. I warmly recommend this show to anyone who craves three hours of shantytown squalor. Treat yourself.

The Realness is a musical tale of redemption set in the East End. Jay, a bolshie young outlaw, is due for release after 17 months inside. As soon as he leaves jail, he's mugged. Just like that. Bang. Out the door and his smartphone gets nicked by highwaymen on bikes. He goes in search of 'wifey', Shanice, now sporting a baby. Not his, apparently. She rejects him. He then lands a plum job as a street cleaner so she takes him back, for obscure reasons, and informs him that the baby is his.

These opening details are rather muddled and confused. …

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