Lotus Beauty deals in desperately important subject matter. Set in a beauty salon in the midst of the south Asian community in Southall, west London, it includes themes of domestic violence, depression, stillbirth, immigration and suicide. And the intermittent sound of trains charging past the salon is a reminder of the “jumpers” that the play speaks about – the disproportionate number of Asian women who kill themselves by rail suicides, and whose ghosts are said to haunt the tracks.
These are big issues, and it is refreshing to see this all-female cast of multi-generational British Asian actors on stage. So it is frustrating that Satinder Kaur Chohan’s script does not effectively tease out the themes it sets up. Part of the problem is the confused tone of the play. It begins with a sitcom vibe – accents and characters that seem as if they have stepped out of Citizen Khan or Goodness Gracious Me, but whose humour is not as sharp. The comedy also leaves little space for the play’s more dramatic and sinister issues – until a rather too pronounced switch in tone after the interval.
The characterisation is not textured enough. There is salon owner Reita (Kiran Landa), who is supercilious towards her salon worker, Tanwant, (Zainab Hasan), and mean to her mother-in-law, Big Dhadhi (Souad Faress). The latter appears with a white beard – a reference to the fact that hair is sacred for Sikh women – and looks like one of Meera Syal’s comic creations. These women speak their backstories bluntly, and feel broad-brush and generic – as skin-deep as the “pamper packages” they are selling in the salon.
There is snappy direction from Pooja Ghai nonetheless and strong performances from the cast – especially the talented Hasan, who works hard to bring depth and compassion to a fairly flat part. Anshula Bain brings a joyful energy as Reita’s streetwise daughter, Pinky. Ulrika Krishnamurti deftly plays the part of an abused wife, but it is again a role that seems two-dimensional.
We begin with skin bleaching, which sets up the theme of colourism, but this is not explored with any depth. Neither are the effects of the beauty industry on these women – the joys of pampering as well as the tyrannies – in a penetrating enough way. There are some powerful moments between the women, though, and a clever combining of Punjabi words with English so that the play does not feel like it is explaining itself to a white British audience.
The tone turns darker in the second half and the play builds in intensity. But it veers towards melodrama, with predictable plot-points. It is such a shame because the conceit of these women coming together in this intimate space is so promising.
• At Hampstead theatre, London, until 18 June