By Robert Bain
For a play apparently so rooted in British Indian culture, it’s a surprise to learn that Rafta, Rafta! is based on a script written about a white British family more than forty years ago. Writer Ayub Khan-Din has reworked and updated Bill Naughton’s comedy All In Good Time, centring it around a pair of second-generation British Indian newlyweds in present day Bolton.
The play shows the nervous young couple struggling to consummate their relationship while living under the groom’s parents’ roof. Their already awkward passion keeps getting killed as the parents try, and fail, to make them comfortable, while mischievous siblings and friends revel in making them uncomfortable.
The farce gets into full swing when the bride Vina confides in her mother, who confides in the rest of the cast, who then spend much of the second act providing unsolicited marriage guidance. The two-storey set – a cross-section of the small terraced house – gives a sense of the couple’s claustrophobia, and is used to great comic effect as we watch different bits of action taking place at once.
Meera Syal, well known for her TV comedy roles, plays the long suffering mother of the groom, but it’s Harish Patel as Eeshwar who gets most of the best lines. As his new daughter-in-law prepares for her long-awaited wedding night, Eeshwar cheerfully reminds her that he and his wife are only in the next room if they need anything, saying: “Just tap on the wall any time of the night. I’m a very light sleeper!”
Eeshwar’s relationship (or lack thereof) with his son Atul provides the most prominent clash between Rafta, Rafta!’s two generations – both convinced that they understand the other, but that the other doesn’t understand them. The serious and sensitive Atul is constantly at odds with his larger than life father, whose boisterous ways make him popular with everyone except those closest to him.
This generation gap is at the heart of the play and many of its jokes. The parents are constantly imparting wisdom, and reminiscing about a past in which all significant events seemed to somehow involve a water buffalo. This is all very funny, if not very challenging. The familiar, exaggerated characters and crude, sniggering jokes give Rafta, Rafta! the same feel as those old sitcoms you find on obscure cable channels. But before things get too silly, the play reveals itself to have a lot more substance than it seemed to at first.
Without bursting the comedy bubble, Rafta, Rafta! takes a serious look at some painful realities. This is especially effective as the older generation start to prod away at the bride and groomâ€™s troubled personal lives, only to find the cracks in their own relationships beginning to show. The central premise keeps pulling the drama forward, but as the play moves on it stops and dwells on other details, and reveals a much richer picture.
At the end there is, as you would expect, both laughter and tears. What makes Rafta, Rafta! that bit more satisfying is the way it manages to draw humour from the things that seemed sad, and sadness from the things that seemed funny.
Tickets: Â£10 – Â£39.50. Until 8 September. Other views from The Independent, The Times and The Guardian.