United Kingdom Deborah Moggach’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: Cliffs Pavilion, Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, 3.5.2023. (JPr)
First came Deborah Moggach’s book, These Foolish Things (2004), which I have not read, but then there were two Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films (2011 and 2015) which I did see, as well as the four series of a BBC One reality TV spinoff, featuring celebrities ‘of a certain age’ touring India, experiencing its culture, and considering it as a potential country where they might retire to. Interestingly the second series (2017) featured Paul Nicholas who plays Douglas in Moggach’s own adaptation of her book (as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) which has reached Westcliff-on-Essex, somewhere marginally (?) less exotic than Bangalore (officially Bengaluru) where what we see is set.
You may wonder why Bangalore was chosen for the novel and stage play? Moggach explains in the programme how, ‘It’s got a high-tech Silicon Valley, it’s got an old Raj past with statues of Queen Victoria and it’s got call centres. The city reflects some of [the] themes I wanted to explore as well as old age.’ The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has not been left in 2004 and the story has been sensitively updated with certain 2023-appropriate references (though whether it accurately represents India as it is today is a different matter).
As the play went on I thought more about a current Sky TV programme I am enjoying – another reboot – Fantasy Island. Moggach’s reflection on how those of an older generation are frustrated and disillusioned by neglect, physical deterioration, post-retirement, post-divorce, post-bereavement blues, and, most significantly, loneliness. There are thoughts of what could have been, as well as what is inevitably ahead, namely death. Fantasy Island allows those arriving at a mysterious luxury resort to get answers to their ‘what if’ questions. The resolutions are occasionally bittersweet, but mostly there is a happy ending, and having watched the programme will leave you feeling good. This is exactly what this Marigold Hotel play does after the joyous Bhangra ending and you are left with the realisation that age is something to be celebrated and not pitied or shied away from.
The story centres on seven elderly retired Brits fleeing the country because of a combination of cold weather, changing attitudes, and families – or a society – unwilling to care for them, or more simply which has no interest in them. The hotel they end up in also has seen better days, its elegance having faded over many decades. We learn that it was formerly an impressive colonial residence, though now, in order to save their business, the Kapoors – mother and son – decide to promote themselves as a residential retirement hotel. However, phones won’t work, the plumbing leaves a lot to be desired, the cook is frequently drunk and his food terrible, and we are told mushrooms are found growing in one of the rooms. At the end of Marigold Hotel not only are the lives of the residents changed forever, but the building itself is also reincarnated.
The first half introduces use to our seven misfits abroad, some are hiding secrets, others are just hiding, we learn their backstory, their prejudices and misgivings about decamping to India and over the rest of the play the truth will out, while for all of them their lives are changed forever … and for the better. This includes those running the hotel: the widowed Mrs Kapoor (Rekha John-Cheriyan) wants to arrange a financially advantageous marriage for her son, however Sonny (Nishad More) loves the vivacious local call centre worker, Sahani (Shila Iqbal), though their relationship is undermined by the emotional blackmail Sonny endures from his mother. Sonny loves his mother very much and wants to please her despite his mother blaming him for running the hotel into the ground and trying to sell it without telling him to call centre owner Mr Gupta (Tiran Aakel).
It is Evelyn (Tessa Peake-Jones) who goes on the biggest journey, after the death of her husband she became frightened to leave the house and at the beginning will not leave the confines of the hotel; though after amusingly mistaking what a call centre does her life regains its purpose as she helps the workers there.
Madge (Belinda Lang) is the resident (!) maneater who has survived a few husbands and is on the hunt for a maharajah. Jean (Eileen Battye) and Douglas (Paul Nicholas) are constantly on the go and give the impression of a happily married couple, but appearances can be deceiving, and we realise that Douglas no longer loves her, and we watch as he bonds with Evelyn. Dorothy (Paola Dionisotti) puzzles the residents who think she is quite mad when heard singing to herself. We later learn she is only reliving her early life in the very same building where she played with childhood friend Jimmy (Harmage Singh Kalirai), now the Kapoors’ servant, who Dorothy only recognises – and becomes reconciled with – just before [spoiler alert] she dies. When Madge says at Dorothy’s funeral, ‘One down, six to go!’ it gets one of the biggest laughs in the entire play. It is Muriel (Marlene Sidaway) – perhaps the oldest of those who have come to live at the hotel – who struggles most to adapt to her new surroundings. However, as a cleaner in her younger days she is dismayed by the treatment meted out to hotel cleaner Tikal (Anant Varman) because he is considered an ‘untouchable’ due to his caste. Muriel defends him and he invites her to his home and soon she is trying the Indian food she distained before and even arranges for Tikal to become the hotel’s new chef.
Finally, there is cricket mad Norman (Graham Seed), who appears to be clinging to Britain’s colonial past more than the others and initially gives off an uncomfortable sex tourist abroad vibe but once he has revealed his own big secret gains acceptance within the group.
The combination of Colin Richmond’s basically single set, his colourful costumes, and Oliver Fenwick’s lighting design definitely transports those watching away from Westcliff-on-Sea and we can almost believe we have arrived in Bangalore ourselves. It is one of the most detailed sets for any play I have ever seen and, with just a few additional bits of stage furniture, can suggest a call centre or a more luxurious bar, for instance. Any music we hear from Kuljit Bhamra also perfectly enhances the pervading atmosphere.
It is efficiently directed by Lucy Bailey and there are few longueurs and the performances from every member of a talented ensemble are pitch perfect and it would be unfair to single anyone out. A number of the cast maybe familiar faces from TV, but they obviously have considerable theatre experience which is expressed in the naturalness of their acting and their near perfect diction (which isn’t a given in theatre performances regardless of any amplification). You could understand every word, and this added to the feel-good factor you will get from watching The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
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Writer – Deborah Moggach
Director – Lucy Bailey
Costume and Set designer – Colin Richmond
Lighting designer – Oliver Fenwick
Sound designer – Mic Pool
Movement director – Lucy Hind
Composer – Kuljit Bhamra MBE
Belinda Lang – Madge
Paul Nicholas – Douglas
Tessa Peake-Jones – Evelyn
Graham Seed – Norman
Paola Dionisotti – Dorothy
Tiran Aakel – Mr Gupta / Fernandes (The Cook)
Eileen Battye – Jean
Graham Seed – Norman
Rekha John-Cheriyan – Mrs Kapoor
Harmage Singh Kalirai – Jimmy / Sadhu (Holy Man / Waiter
Shila Iqbal – Sahani
Kerena Jagpal – Kamila
Marlene Sidaway – Muriel
Nishad More – Sonny Kapoor
Anant Varman – Mohan / Tikal