Review: Behind The Beautiful Forevers at the National Theatre, London

Behind The Beautiful Forevers is not a play for the faint-hearted. Murders, shocking suicides, corruption, foul language and deep injustices are all competing for attention. But there’s no denying that this is a play with a soul

Directed by Rufus Norris and cleverly adapted by David Hare from Katherine Boo’s bestselling book, it depicts the real-life experiences of families living in makeshift homes in Annawadi, one of many slums that lie in the shadow of the sprawling Mumbai airport and surrounding hotels. It’s difficult to imagine a more graphic and vivid display of the division of equality than this.

The deafening sound of a plane taking off echoes around the auditorium at the same time as its shadow seemingly flies directly over us in the audience at the National Theatre. Soon after hundreds of plastic bottles crash onto the stage falling amongst other rubbish and the cast. The cluttered set is busy with striking juxtapositions such as shiny billboards featuring Bollywood stars above the corrugated metal of the improvised roofs below. It’s details like this that helps bring both the harsh realities and hustle and bustle of Annawadi to London, and make it a spectacle well worth going to see.

It’s difficult at moments to remember that the scenes on stage are based on a non-fiction book rather than a novel. Events – such as when a woman sets herself on fire – are all the more difficult to stomach when you know it actually happened. Perhaps almost as shocking is the level of corruption that’s demonstrated – something the book shows to an even more devastating extent. For anyone who has ever donated to charities who provide aid to India, it makes for uncomfortable viewing.

But despite the disbelief the audience may feel, it’s the hope and compassion that both stand out and those are the feelings I carry home with me. There’s the touching scenes of the girls who meet in the toilet block so one can teach the other about plays she has read at school; the entrepreneurial rubbish picker who decides to take the moral high ground and refuse any stolen goods despite the profit it will make; the injustice of the court system finally being set right and the hope that soon, just around the corner, there may be some escape.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers runs at the National Theatre until 13 April 2015.