(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Watford on 14 October)
I remember Neil D’Souza’s first play A Small Miracle from its Colchester production a few years ago. it was a quirky exploration of pilgrimage, longing and just a couple of things which cannot easily be explained away by rationality. Coming Up also deals with longings, journeys both mental and physical and quite a few inexplicable things. The title refers to an India catch-phrase signifying social mobility and the ladder of success. Ladders, as everyone who has ever played a board game knows, also have snakes.
We are in India, a time-shift country in more senses than one. The action takes place partly in present-day Mumbai, now a thriving economic hot-spot – at least, if you’re on the top of the go-getting heap. We are also, frequently at the same time, in rural Mangalore between 1938 and 1943 as well as in a narrative time limbo. Director Brigid Larmour, movement director Shona Morris and designer Rebecca Brower have eschewed naturalism for a fluidity which is neither wholly Indian nor completely Western.
D”Souza plays Alan Lobo, a middle-aged British Asian now successful in business, and ruthless with it. He’s in Mumbai to see if shifting his enterprise to the Philippines will be worthwhile; it’s all down to the bottom line. He has also taken the opportunity to visit his aunt Alice (Goldy Notay) and renew his boyhood friendship with her son Daniel (Mitesh Soni). The names tell you that this is a Christian family.
Clambering to the top in business often has to be a ruthless, single-minded affair. Alan’s casualties include his estranged father Jacob (Ravin J Ganatra as the older man, Notay as a boy), Alan’s wife Anya and his call-centre manager – and occasional mistress – Hanna (Clara Indrani). Christian India may have said that it ignored the caste system, but the Lobo family’s status as mere farm labourers automatically relegate him to the bottom of the heap, even as an altar boy scrubbing latrines rather than attending class.
The two priests of Pezar parish are the authoritarian, not to say sadistic and libidinous, Fr Mendoza (Ganatra) and the twoo-soft-for-his-own-good Fr Alvares (Soni). Ganatra takes on the part of Ghalib, Alan’s Mumbai driver. Indrani additionally plays teacher Mrs Pereira, the thoroughly unpleasant cook who torments young Jacob and a sinuous man-eating tiger who prowls through both his dreams and his reality.
It may all sound incredibly complicated, but this style of staging allows the action to flow and the changes in location to evolve without physical scene changes. A sari, androgynous shirts and loose trousers switch Indrani and Notay effortlessly between rôles and sexes; a crucifix or stole marks the priest from the layman. The acting is uniformly good and Arun Ghosh’s soundscape makes fine use of the Schubert “Ave Maria”.
Coming Up continues at the Palace Theatre, Watford until 24 October.