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Theatre Review – Last Dance at Dum Dum

Venue: Riverside Theatre (Lennox)
Written By: Ayub Khan-Din
Directed By: Lenore Robertson

Khan-din’s play focuses on an isolated Anglo-Indian community household in the Dum Dum district of 1980s Calcutta, struggling to survive changes that have left them displaced culturally, feeling disowned by the British and despised by Indians. The impoverished and aging residents “holed up” in a decaying bungalow represent a currently dwindling minority of mixed British and Indian ancestry, whose native language is English, and who under the Raj held lesser administrative posts. After Independence (1947) many of this distinct population were either absorbed into local communities or sought a new life in countries like Australia.

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The play opens with a distraught Muriel Marsh (Ann Geenen) trying to throw objects over the rusting garden wall at strident revellers next door. Introduced very soon is the bungalow’s landlord and Hindu fundamentalist Mr Chakravatty (Dixit Thakkar), who pretends offence at Muriel’s behaviour, although it seems the noise is very much a deliberate provocation. The little community is in arrears of rent, and it is apparent from Chakravatty’s unctuous manner that he despises his tenants and intends to evict them. The audience understands well enough that the residents are living on borrowed time, and money, while they willfully perhaps, or helplessly, devote their energies to holding a dance. Nostalgically, Muriel recalls watching such a dance as a child: “It was magical.”

All of the inhabitants of the bungalow are caught up in the used-to-bes and might-have-beens. Muriel, now suffering from a brain tumour and subject to fits of uncontrollable rage, remembers that she could have been an actress. Her husband Bertie (Marty O’Neil) recalls her as she was before her illness. Mr Jones (Michael Mouyat) remembers his wife and is deeply attached to the very orderly garden she planned with lawn and cane furniture and which forms the decorous stage set. Daphne (Cristina Barbara) remembers her French lover who deserted her and Violet (Suparna Malick) obsessively and comically collects images of a colonial administration she revered. Lydia (Penny Day), “a real Englishwoman” with a double-barrelled surname who joins the household, remembers the India of her childhood, and the house help, Elliot (Neel Banerjee), remembers his successful impersonation of Marilyn Monroe. In fact the funniest moment belongs to him as, after describing his raunchy performances to Lydia when she asks him to perform for her, he says, “I’m too shy”.

To an extent, the characters seem like escapees from an Agatha Christie country house crime novel, with an often too tentative stage presence and overly histrionic outbursts or unconvincing enthusiasms. Yet, their performances somehow fit the more brutal concerns of the play. While they dither, Mr Chakravatty plots. In a scheme that has resonance for the present day, he reclaims the bungalow’s precious garden as a sacred site of Lord Krishna, who once stubbed his toe on a rock in the vicinity. He overreaches himself, however, and he is caught up in mob violence, which he and his supporters originally incited themselves, and has to seek a very temporary refuge with his frightened but altruistic tenants.

While there is no solution offered to the problem of cultural displacement within a group’s own homeland, Last Dance at Dum Dum does highlight the failure of both isolation and withdrawal and of oppression and persecution to achieve a productive national future. Nautanki Theatre does a great service to our community in presenting a play that raises issues which we, and many communities worldwide, are not addressing successfully. Congratulations to the well-rehearsed production team on a smooth running first night.

theatre@ssh.com.au

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