Warm, funny and lacerating, Satinder Kaur Chohan’s new play opens with a fly-on-the-wall look at the daily attempts women make to be accepted and acceptable in the hostile environments we occupy. In this case, we meet the owner of the titular salon, Reita (Kiran Landa) and her employee, Tanwant (Zainab Hasan) engaging in the commonplace light-hearted lament of ladies: the pair scrutinise their faces for signs of fatigue and aging – they are, after all in a beauty parlour. But we are specifically in a South Asian beauty shop in Southall and both characters are immigrants to the UK; one long-established, with property and a British passport, and the other without legal status and living in fear. The chit-chat about wrinkles and bags under the eyes means it’s time to bleach their skin, as Tanwant notes, ‘Punjabis want wheat colour girl… to chew up… spit out… Nahi, forget wheat, I want fair ‘n’ lovely gori gori rang like you…’.
Chohan gives us a vividly drawn world shown through the stories of five women across three generations, with both tenderness and asperity. The intersections of colourism, class aspiration, exploitation and dashed dreams come thick and fast – delivered with humanity and wit but also dramatic weight.
Newcomer Anshula Bain as Reita’s 15-year-old daughter, Pinky, steals the show with a magnetic performance. Enacting a character who is both dismissive of ‘freshies’ (new immigrants) whilst being kind to her grandmother, infatuated with her first lover, irritated by her mother and seeking to get ahead with her own hustle – without full moral appreciation of potential consequences – Bain gives us a likeable and totally committed embodiment of coming-of-age as a young woman and as a second-generation immigrant. Likewise, Souad Faress as Big Dhadhi (“BD”), Pinky’s paternal grandmother/Reita’s mother-in-law, arrives initially comically as the cranky bearded lady refusing to conform to the strictures of beauty meted out. Chohan’s characters are complicated and multi-dimensional; she avoids the simplistic trap of clichés that could have easily tipped this work into Punjabi Steel Magnolias territory. Each woman has flaws, illusions, trauma and valuable determinations many of which find conflict with each other but also, eventually, offer hope and communion
In building the world, Chohan’s script and Pooja Ghai’s direction, are mainly textured and compelling. Written in four acts but performed as two segments on either side of an interval, the end of the pre-interval action does, unfortunately, begin to drag somewhat. However, the post-interval opening (Act 3 as written) bursts forth theatrically and sustains a powerful intensity. Faress delivers a breath-taking monologue about her ‘passage’, both into the UK and into and in defence of her identity – illuminating the indignities, violations, sacrifices and routine cruelty of India’s former coloniser and now home. The theme of how women do not always act in sisterly support when pitted against one another is explored, be it Reita exploiting Tanwat’s lack of documentation to avoid paying her minimum wage or the despair at British hypocrisy when BD asks, ‘I has right…Those gora mans know they wrong. But no say sorry. No ever say sorry. How UK, with woman Prime Minister, Rani Queen, how UK do this to women like us?‘
Initially slated for its premiere in 2020 but delayed due to the pandemic, Lotus Beauty is worth the wait and – both topical and universal – is possibly even all the more relevant today.
Review by Mary Beer
Lotus Beauty follows the intertwined lives of five multigenerational women, inviting us into Reita’s salon where clients can wax lyrical about their day’s tiny successes or have their struggles massaged, plucked or tweezed away. But with honest truths and sharp-witted barbs high among the treatments on offer, will the power of community be enough to raise the spirits of everyone who passes through the salon doors?
PINKY – ANSHULA BAIN
BIG DHADHI – SOUAD FARESS
TANWANT – ZAINAB HASAN
KAMAL – ULRIKA KRISHNAMURTI
REITA – KIRAN LANDA
WRITER – SATINDER CHOHAN
DIRECTOR – POOJA GHAI
DESIGNER – ROSA MAGGIORA
LIGHTING – MATT HASKINS
SOUND – THE RINGHAM BROTHERS
COSTUME SUPERVISOR – MALENA ARCUCCI
DIALECT* GURKIRAN KAUR
ASSISTANT DIRECTOR* CASSIA THAKKAR
*Roles supported by Tamasha Theatre Company
HAMPSTEAD DOWNSTAIRS / CELIA ATKIN PRESENT
BY SATINDER CHOHAN
DIRECTED BY POOJA GHAI