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Adapting a novel for stage can be hazardous. Linear narrative, well suited to the novel, can make for flat drama; characters and situations that have time to develop subtly on the page may have to be condensed and simplified on the stage. This is perhaps the problem with Tamasha theatre company’s rather pedestrian staging of Rohinton Mistry’s award-winning 1995 novel. For, although the book’s subject is important, moving and revealing, and although Kristine Landon-Smith’s production
features many fine performances, it proves a slow and undernourished play.

It is set in India in 1975. A giant poster of Indira Gandhi smiles down over proceedings. But life for her citizens is grim and getting grimmer under the state of emergency she has declared. The focus of the story is Dina, a Parsi widow who is determined to live by her own industry rather than marry again or move in with her wealthy, domineering brother. She takes in a young student lodger and finds work supplying garments to an export business, hiring two low-caste Hindu tailors to sew for her.

Hidden in Dina’s cramped flat, the four find camaraderie, understanding and respect, despite their differences of class and religion. But then the government’s draconian programme of slum clearances and mass sterilisation impacts on them. By the end, only Maneck, the student, has become a success. The others have all lost their dreams and been reduced to dependency.

The “fine balance” of the title runs through all aspects of the story. There is the fine balance between hope and despair, between survival and destitution, that affects many of the characters. There is the balance between modernisation and destruction, between compassion and control. And the play demonstrates how a government that supposedly prizes discipline destroys a woman for whom discipline and hard work are instinctive.

All this is absorbing and moving, and the play shockingly portrays the desperate struggle for survival on the streets, in the shape of characters such as Beggarmaster, who talks about sending people for “professional modifications”, yet has a conscience of sorts. As a piece of drama, though, it has to cram in too much incident to work well, and emerges bitty, often static and sometimes unclear. The actors work hard to establish rounded characters in short scenes. Sudhar Bhuchar gives Dina dignity and spirit, Sagar Arya and Amit Sharma are moving as the two tailors. But even the most vivid performances feel mired down.
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