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Lotus Beauty

Satinder Chohan (plawright)

(Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, 13 May – 18 June 2022)

Review by Sita Brahmachari


‘Southall roots and grounds me,’ says playwright Satinder Chohan in the programme notes for Lotus Beauty which premiered at the Hampstead Theatre, directed by the newly appointed Artistic Director of Tamasha Theatre Company, Pooja Ghai. ‘Lotus Beauty’ is a hairdressing salon turned refuge, sanctuary and community hub as much as it is a place for plucking, waxing and preening. It lulls you, in Act 1, with beauty salon banter, then reveals the blemishes and bruises… and worse. 

Rosa Maggiora’s perfectly pitched Southall High Street set places audiences as if in a waiting room. The discomfort seems fittingly familiar, as if we could step beyond the lotus flower logo right in through the door for a leg wax or one of the surprisingly wide-ranging, squirm-in-your-seat offerings from the ‘beauty’ menu. The reception buzzes with appointments, a display of nail polish and veneers bedeck the wall, and a threading station awaits the next set of eyebrows. Two private rooms are glimpsed at moments when a client floats in or out with haughty detachment following an intimate procedure. 

The set prepares the ground for an intergenerational cast of characters, including feisty but vulnerable-to-grooming, fifteen-year-old Southall school girl, Pinky, played with verve by Anshula Bain, who is on ‘work experience’ (painting nails, mostly her own, in the salon. Pinky has a special bond with gutsy salon worker Tanwant, joyfully performed by Zainab Hasan, who in her impossible daydream fantasies becomes a beauty queen to a rousing chorus of the National Anthem, as she’s awarded not a crown but her passport. 

Through the light touch banter, and grimace-inducing detail (if you don’t know what a landing strip is, then you probably don’t want to!), the outside world intrudes on the salon’s thinly disguised attempt at perfection and order. Plaster falls from the ceiling as the Heathrow trains pass. Played by Kiran Landa, the salon owner Reita’s brittle pursuit of perfection, towards a bigger house and salon, gives hints of a desperation to hold onto control and suggestions of a well-hidden traumatic past. Kamal, played by Ulrika Krishnamurti in a subtle, moving performance, is a nervous young mother and salon cleaner whose covering of cuts and bruises rings alarm bells. 

After lulling with laughter, Ghai’s deftly choreographed production returns audiences from the interval for something more menacing. Shadows of the real-life tragic plight of Navjeet Sidhu who jumped with her children in front of the Heathrow Express are ever present. Memories of body-trauma break the perfect veneers and masks of this salon. In a scene of searing emotion, the actress Souad Faress, playing a bearded-chinned elder ‘Big Dhadi’, relives her own chilling arrival in the UK – faced with an immigration practice known as ‘virginity testing’ to verify marital status (a scandal that erupted when exposed in a Guardian newspaper report in 1979). It is in these visceral and memory-lit moments of trauma, lyrically directed, that the deeper undertows of Lotus Beauty are most fully revealed.

The impact of Lotus Beauty fully unfolds in a concertinaed movement of control, freedom, coercion, abuse, community solidarity and conformity. But there is nothing conformist about Faress’s determinedly grey-bearded ‘Big Dhadi.’ She inhabits the role in a moving, physically vulnerable, stand out performance not soon forgotten. It is impossible not to draw comparisons with the recent shockingly inhumane treatment of Child Q. Stepping out of the ‘Lotus Beauty’ salon there are many comic and tragic threads to hold onto, but the tender, intergenerational moments of recognition between Southall women across the generations, past and present, are a sustaining, poignant note in Chohan’s timely play.