Review: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel at Liverpool Playhouse ****
First it was a best-selling book (titled These Foolish Things), then a hit film, followed by a reality TV series populated by a cohort of celebrities including – coincidently – Paul Nicholas.
Now author Deborah Moggach has written a stage version of her popular tale of a disparate gaggle of third agers thrown together as they relocate to the subcontinent to live out their years in sunnier, more financially appealing climes.
Its big screen outing was something of a who’s who of British acting veterans including no fewer than three dames. And this live touring production also features a cast of familiar faces, albeit from the small screen, including Belinda Lang, Tessa Peake-Jones and the aforementioned Nicholas.
Both Moggach’s book and its film adaptation set the scene in rainy, grey old Britain before heading for India’s exotic glow.
Here, she plunges the audience directly into the shimmering heat of Bangalore (officially known as Bengaluru) where the faded colonial splendour of the eponymous ‘Marigold Hotel’ is impressively realised by designer Colin Richmond, his atmospheric two-storey set a visual feast of colonnades, intricate woodwork and staircases.
A ‘magnificent seven’ of mature protagonists – or immature in the case of Graham Seed’s ageing lothario Norman (what my mum would describe witheringly as a ‘Binkie Huckaback’) – include self-made glamour puss Madge (Belinda Lang) who is now looking for a rich man to marry, Marlene Sidaway’s cantankerous career cleaner, and Peake-Jones’ timid widow Evelyn.
While the story looks winsome and warm-hearted on paper, and feels it on stage too, it also has uncomfortable swirling undercurrents pulling at it.
Chief among these is the way modern Western society views its older members - and indeed deals with old age generally, their care here coming not from family or society but outsourced to strangers in a strange land. Bear in mind the sobering fact that more than 18% of the British population (11 million people) is 65 and over, and that figure is rising.
But into this is thrown the clash of cultures between the British retirees and their Indian hosts (eager-to-please Sonny (Nishad More) and his possessive mother) and the people they meet along the way, intergenerational differences, class and caste, and the expectations imposed on and emanating from India’s modern youth.
Above: Tessa Peake-Jones as Evelyn and Paul Nicholas as Douglas. Top: Residents of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Photos by Mikal Ludlow.
Like its inhabitants, the ramshackle hotel’s historic edifice appears old and somewhat fuddy-duddy in the face of Bangalore’s position as the gleaming ‘Silicon Valley’ of India, something to be swept away and replaced by a shiny new palace paying homage to the city’s high-tech present.
But of course, just like the bright young things (Shila Iqbal’s Sahani and Anant Varman’s Mohan) who work in a nearby call centre discover, there’s still plenty to learn from and admire about the old – and the hotel’s inhabitants in turn discover there’s much to be embraced about the new too.
It’s all gently entertaining, feelgood stuff with some biting observations about modern life and relationships that are met by a murmur (or hollow laugh) of recognition from its predominately more mature audience and might hopefully offer some food for thought for younger theatregoers.
While there are still more older women than men in the UK, there’s also a bit of a narrative imbalance between the sexes here, with the two male hotel residents (Norman and Nicholas’ gentle, henpecked husband Douglas) painted as a bit lost and passive in comparison with their female fellow adventurers who really blossom in the Indian sun.
The action rattles along in short, sharp bursts, punctuated by much carrying on and off of tables, chairs, loungers and cushions and exits through archways and up a flight of stairs (with a discreet steadying hand hold at the top).
The most compelling scenes are those which are allowed time to breathe and unfold – and even become properly moving - in the cast’s capable and experienced hands.