A Skin-Deep Look on the South Asian Women of Southall

Kamal and Reita in 'Lotus Beauty', image Hampstead Theatre
Kamal and Reita in 'Lotus Beauty', image Hampstead Theatre

Lotus Beauty

From: 19 May 2022

To: 18 Jun 2022

Hampstead Theatre Downstairs
Eton Avenue
Swiss Cottage

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1966 is a date etched into the minds of everyone in England. The world’s eyes looked to London, as a champion scored an unprecedented win. Reita Faria became the first Indian and Asian woman to win Miss World, entrenching her nation as an international attraction – alongside a burgeoning nuclear superpower.

'Reita Faria', 1966, image BBC News
Reita Faria, 1966. Image BBC News

Lotus Beauty seeks to reinstate the stories of South Asian and Sikh women within British history. The production’s complimentary programme doubles up as an accessible curriculum, redressing the gaps in our education with a timeline from the post-colonial migration of the 1950s, to the present day.

But the production only scratches the surface of these complex lived experiences. Perpetual police raids, Home Office search warrants, unwanted children, and domestic abuse are all addressed in a manner which, from the outside, could reinforce negative stereotypes about these communities. (Arifa Akbar, herself of Punjabi heritage, sees caricatures pinched from Goodness Gracious Me or Citizen Khan, but without the accompanying satirical sting).

It’s not for lack of research. Rosa Maggiora’s lurid pink set is an uncanny reproduction of the women-run salons of west London. Writer (and self-proclaimed Southallwali) Satinder Chohan passed a month in her local Beauty Room, adding to her years of frequenting threading salons across continents.

Where other contemporary beauty shop dramas – from Inua Ellams’ Barber Shop Chronicles to Danielle Fahiya’s WE SEE NO COLOUR – focus on community, what we get is rather more clinical. I would have liked to see director Pooja Ghai’s stated intention to show intercommunity immigrant solidarity in London – like with Brixton’s Black hair salons – borne out more: instead, salon owner Reita (Kiran Landa) slurs the people of Southall, pigeonholed as a place of drug dens and underperforming schools.

For a job so dependent on interpersonal relations, Reita seems remarkably detached from the impact of her work. One customer, clearly abused by her husband, makes a heartfelt remark that she longs to feel as beautiful as Reita made her feel on her wedding day. A mere shrug, and Reita returns to berating her daughter, ‘you’re on work experience, so experience doing some work’. Her paid staff are subject to a similar mistreatment, seemingly excused by the promise of tax-free, cash-in-hand work. 

Reita is the stereotype of the aspirational immigrant, heralded in elite political and economic circles today. No stranger to local politics, Reita too sucks up to buy one of her local Councillor Gill’s seven houses. ‘Born there, belong here’, she stubbornly proclaims, bulldozing through her family’s wishes towards a wealthier, whiter life.

Shadism is one such difficult subject that is glossed over, and never fully developed. Desperate salon worker Tanwant (Zainab Hansan) slathers on facial bleach, complaining that she is ‘much too dark for him to see me’. The him is, of course, her much pined-after prospective husband. A tragic suicide seems marginalised as a plot point, insensitively employed for dramatic effect, or to create a stark change in tone after the interval. 

Tamasha, 'Lotus Beauty', image Hampstead Theatre
Kamal and Reita in Tamasha’s ‘Lotus Beauty’, image Hampstead Theatre

Occasional line slips aside, the cast do well to bring compassion and character to these flat roles. Hasan trades quips with Anshula Bain as Reita’s energetic daughter, Pinky, who wants to experience real life ‘as it happens, through my phone’. Darting between Punjabi and English, their conversations capture these more complex, hybrid identities.

The play shines in showing these subtle similarities, like how gossip spreads as readily in the rural villages of the Punjab as the urban suburbs. We relish in hearing wise adages, like ‘never pull a grey hair – pull one, whole garden grow’. Reita’s mother-in-law, Big Dhadhi (Souad Faress) is sadly underutilised, as a source of light relief – her beard parodied, as the only thing longer than her toenails.

Lotus Beauty is Hampstead Theatre’s last rescheduled performance from the pandemic. In the meantime, the production’s parent company, Tamasha, looked to alternatives like The Waves, a boundary-pushing set of short audio dramas, exploring contemporary culture wars through the lens of the British empire. These innovative, surreal works paint a more reflective picture of contemporary Britain. Beyond the static representations of Lotus Beauty, Tamasha is certainly pioneering a more dynamic model for where theatre should go next.

Lotus Beauty runs at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs until 18th June 2022.

With grateful thanks to Jelena Sofronijevic  for this review. Jelena (@jelsofron) is an audio producer and freelance journalist, who makes content at the intersections of intercultural political history and the arts. They are the producer of EMPIRE LINES, a podcast which uncovers the unexpected flows of Empires through artworks.

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