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Picture the scene. It is your wedding night. The guests have gone, the lights are low, soft music is playing. You are about to slip off your robe and do what honeymooners do and in walks – your father. “Anything you want, just tap on the wall,” he instructs helpfully. “I’m a very
light sleeper.”

It’s not what the marriage guidance counsellors advocate. Little wonder then that Atul and Vina have some difficulty consummating their marriage. Forced, through economic circumstances, to start their married life in Atul’s family home, with his teenage posters on the bedroom wall and his parents snoring next door, they find intimacy hard to achieve. Six weeks later they are still virgins and the strain is beginning to tell. It’s a painful scenario, but in Rafta, Rafta Ayub Khan-Din makes it the heart of a wonderful, bittersweet comedy about family life. It’s old-fashioned, it’s sentimental, it’s corny – but you would have to have a heart of stone to resist it.

If the plot sounds vaguely like something else, that’s because it is something else. Khan-Din’s play is based on All in Good Time, a 1960s comedy by Bill (Alfie) Naughton about a pair of newlyweds in Bolton. Khan-Din’s ingenious idea is to adapt Naughton’s original to modern-day Bolton, making the families Indian. This brings an interesting sociological dimension to the piece – that what spoke for the problems of white working-class folk 40 years ago now sits well in the Asian community. It also gives Naughton’s style of popular comedy a voice on the National stage, while filling it with fine British Asian actors. And Khan-Din (who wrote the immensely popular East Is East), makes the play his own, with his wise, generous writing. This, unlike Atul’s and Vina’s, is a marriage that instantly works well.

It would be easy to find holes in the play – some characters are thinly drawn, some plot-twists are implausible, the ending is too neat – but its warmth is such that it is hard to mind them much. And Nicholas Hytner’s witty but compassionate production draws out the play’s shadows, as well as its laughs. Here Atul and Vina, touchingly played by Ronny Jhutti and Rokhsaneh Ghawam-Shahidi, find married life hard in the cramped conditions of the small terraced house (painstakingly reproduced in Tim Hatley’s
two-storey set). But as the play unfolds, it becomes clear that they are not the only ones struggling with the marital state.

Vina’s parents (Shaheen Khan and Kriss Dosanjh) conduct their lives with a chilly politeness. And between Atul’s parents, Eeshwar and Lopa, stands the memory of Eeshwar’s best friend, who strangely accompanied them on their honeymoon in Blackpool. While the young couple have problems to fix, their parents also need to confront their difficulties. The title of the play, Rafta, Rafta (slowly, slowly), has meaning for them all.

The play’s mixture of tender and tart is beautifully handled too by the cast. As Lopa, Atul’s wise and weary mother, Meera Syal gives a subtly observed, understated performance. She makes a perfect counterfoil for Eeshwar, played by the Bollywood star Harish Patel with infectious panache. His Eeshwar is all bonhomie and bluster: he holds the stage as he dances in the living room, shaking his ample frame, or bounces tactlessly on his unfortunate son’s marital bed. Eehswar is wilfully obtuse about the impact of his overbearing behaviour, and Patel makes him infuriating – but also lovable. And he expertly shifts the mood as he delivers Eeshwar’s moving speech about the loneliness and hostility he experienced on first arriving in Britain. Not a great play, then, but one with great heart.
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