Last Dance at Dum Dum

Review by Ellen Becker

Before the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel captured hearts and minds with its tale of English retirees retreating to an Indian retirement village, Pakistani-English playwright Ayub Khan-Din penned a well-intentioned tale of aged Anglo-Indians in a run-down colonial bungalow in Kolkata. Given his characters’ colonialist predilection for affirming Bombay over Mumbai, I guess I should correct myself on that –Calcutta, rather.

Instead of Best Exotic’s inward-looking gaze, Khan-Din replaces character studies with mouthpieces, each representing a certain slant on the Anglo-Indian identity in post-colonial India. Muriel (Anne Geenen) is fighting valiantly (and seemingly under the influence of a brain tumour) to defend the Anglo-Indian minority from the “fascist” Hindu Nationalists next door, represented by the serpentine party leader Mr. Chakraborty (Dixit Thakkar).

The bungalow’s matron, Daphne (Cristina Barbara), is the resident peacemaker, trying to quell Muriel’s “turns” while placating the cunning Chakraborty. Frequently derided for her indifference, Daphne’s dark past reveals a running theme of turning a blind eye. Punctuating the growing tension with welcome comic relief is Violet (played with excellent comic timing by Suparna Mallick), an ardent Anglophile who hoards the dwindling detritus of British India and frequently alludes to the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 (the birth of the British Raj). A latecomer to the mix is Lydia (Penny Day), an English widow who absconds from Thatcherite Britain to live out her twilight years in India. 

While the characters lament their precarious identity in modern India, age-old tensions between the minority Muslim community and the Hindu majority are bubbling into frequent and brutal riots beyond the garden walls. As the oldies prepare for their annual dance, blood once again fills the streets of Calcutta. 

After Khan-Din’s incredible success with his Olivier Award-winning debut work East is East, Last Dance at Dum Dum was considered anticlimactic (soon redeemed by later work Rafta, Rafta... in 2007). His poorly sketched characters in Dum Dum lack subtlety and nuance, functioning as conduits for a thinly guised didacticism. The cast of the Nautanki Theatre treat the work with supreme verve, but the disconnect can’t help but spring from between the pages. Despite the shortcomings of this production, Nautanki Theatre Company continues with its commendable mission to bring diverse voices and experiences to the stage, and its a pleasure to see this mission come to fruition.