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The Theatreguide.London Review

A Fine Balance
Hampstead Theatre     April 2007, and national tour

This production by the touring company Tamasha had a brief run here last year and now returns as part of a national tour.

The adaptation (by company founders Sudha Bhuchar and Kristine Landon-Smith) of Rohinton Mistry's 1995 novel has all the virtues and limitations of dramatised fiction, and your enjoyment of the stage version is likely to be determined by whether you have read the book.

Those who have will unconsciously fill in all the background, subplots and texture that an adaptation must inevitably sacrifice. Those who don't know the novel (including myself) are likely to find the stage version thin, episodic and uninvolving.

Mistry's story, set in 1970s India, centres on a poor dressmaker, her even poorer tailors, and her student-boarder. Just a precarious step above beggary to begin with, they are buffeted by fate, venality and the civil-liberties-destroying forces of Indira Gandhi's State of Emergency until they are all but destroyed by the end.

(Only the student seems to escape, and an epilogue suggests that this was at the cost of something in his soul.)

On one level, then, the story is familiar - the poor get poorer. What one must guess raises Mistry's novel above this is a depth of characterisation and a richness of evoked atmosphere.

And of course it is exactly those things that a stage adaptation is bound to lose, unless a director more inspired than Kristine Landon-Smith is able to find visual and theatrical equivalents.

Landon-Smith keeps the action flowing, inventively stretches a cast of eight over at least three times that many roles, and shoehorns a dozen settings into Sue Mayes' multilevel set.

But she can't make the characters fuller or more evocative than the stripped-down script allows, or create more of a sense of time and place than is generated automatically by an all-Asian cast.

So, unless you fill these things in yourself out of memories of the book, what you see will play like a student crammer notes version of the book - most of the plot, but little of the flavour.

The adaptation is further limited by the almost irresistible adapter's temptation to include striking elements or figures from the book just because readers might miss them.

And so some very minor characters take up a lot of our attention in the early scenes, while we're waiting to see who the play will eventually focus on, and a few plot meanderings that might have been ironed out remain to add to the episodic feel.

And the need to condense a book-length plot produces a structure of more than thirty short scenes, with much of each taken up with unlikely dialogue filling in the transitions and offstage events.

The cast, most of whom double and quadruple roles, range from adequate downward, with the combination of a jumble of accents and some particularly wooden acting too often interfering with simple communication.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of A Fine Balance - Hampstead Theatre 2007


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