Rafta, Rafta means slowly, slowly in Hindi, a most appropriate title for a play about an extremely slow-burning sexual relationship between a newly married couple. Ayub Khan-Din’s play is based on the 1963 play All In Good Time by Bill Naughton, in which a couple is compelled to live with the groom’s kind-hearted but insensitive father. Jo Fletcher-Cross was at the first night at the Lyttelton to see the story transferred to a contemporary Asian family…
In a cramped Bolton semi, the Dutt family are returning home after the wedding of their son. The slight, sensitive groom, Atul (Ronny Jhutti) is teased mercilessly by his jovial, overbearing father Eeshwar. But he lights up when his beautiful bride, Vina (Rokhsaneh Ghawam-Shahidi) arrives at the house with her proud father, Laxman (Kriss Dosanjh).
The Dutt’s two-up, two-down house, designed by Tim Hatley, is a warm and colourful place. It looks so completely lived in and cosy that it almost tempts you to jump onstage and settle into one of the armchairs, where before long someone would surely bring you a cup of tea. Hugh Vanstone’s lighting emphasises the intimate spaces in the small house, giving the lovely sense of being somewhere inviting and cheerful, even when it is raining outside.
As the celebrations continue into the early hours of the morning, it becomes clear that the young couple are going to have a lot to contend with. Vina is moving into her new husband’s room at the family home until they can get their own place. The family are noisy, the walls are thin – “Just tap on the wall if you need anything, I’m a light sleeper”, urges Eeshwar – and Atul is worried that everything isn’t as he dreamed.
The naïve young couple want to consummate their marriage, but are thwarted in their first efforts when their bed – tampered with by Atul’s teenage brother Jai (Rudi Dharmalingam) – collapses with a whump, making Vina laugh and ruining Atul’s fragile self-confidence. From then on, they have difficulties, until six weeks later they are barely talking and they still haven’t made any progress.
Atul and Vina’s problems reveal cracks in the marriages of their own parents; from the complete lack of communication between Laxman and Vina’s mother, Lata (Shaheen Khan), to the revelations by Atul’s mother that their honeymoon in Blackpool was also attended by Eeshwar’s best friend, and that the two men went on the Tunnel of Love together. “We thought they were speedboats”, says Eeshwar, in his defence.
Harish Patel, who plays Eeshwar, is a huge star in India, where he has performed in more than 80 films. He also has extensive stage experience, including roles with the National Theatre of India, performing Sartre, Pinter and Shakespeare. His performance is finely measured, both comical and monstrous, with the innate ability to make the audience empathise with him, even when he is being a complete buffoon. Meera Syal’s exasperated yet loving wife, Lopa, is the perfect foil to his genial portrayal of a father who has lost touch with the feelings of his children.
Rafta, Rafta is both hilarious and heartbreaking, with acute observations of Asian family life in the early 21st century. Nicholas Hytner’s bold direction ensures that anyone with a family will be able to relate to the bittersweet tale that Ayub Khan-Din has created.