Wah! Wah! Girls
Wah! Wah! Girls
Sadler’s Wells Peacock Theatre
In Act 1 Scene 6 of Tanika Gupta’s Wah! Wah! Girls the 25 bus to Hackney Downs turns into a fishing ghat on the river Ganges. The ghat (set of steps) is wheeled off, carpets and hookahs are laid down, nawabs take their seats and a young nautch girl performs a rendition of Rekha’s ‘Dil Cheez’ from the 1981 Bollywood classic Umrao Jaan. It becomes more complicated: the girl performing is Sita (Rebecca Grant, Natasha Jayetileke), a runaway from Leeds, flashing-back the Indian childhood of an East End mujra (dance) club owner, Soraya (Sophia Haque) whose story of family feud, displacement and dancing she mimics. The flashback ends, a Polish builder draws a photo-printed terrace house and newsagent’s shop curtain across the stage, puppet pigeons flutter on held by pigeon-grey hoody-wearing boys and the scene returns to Stratford, London.
You couldn’t ask for a more layered description of the webs of South Asian culture and memory in the UK than those put forward in Wah! Wah! Girls by Tanika Gupta (script), Niraj Chag (music), Javed Sanadi and Gauri Sharma Tripathi (choreography), Keith Khan (set and costume design), and Emma Rice (director). But you could very well ask that the webs be less ridden with multi-cultural cliché, Nickelodeon TV style acting, utterly forgettable song lyrics delivered with cringing tonal flatness, school-assembly-esque props and the most unbearable ‘I switched off the DVD player and it turned out none of this was real’ plot-clincher.
Wah! Wah! Girls is socially interrogative and embarrassing. On paper it deals with what the programme’s helpful glossary terms the ‘kismet’ (destiny) of the lower-classes in austerity-era London, with the romance and reality of diaspora, with sex- and dance-workers’ exploitation, with fundamentalist interpretations of Sharia law and with generational blood-feuds. But on stage these social themes are too often rendered flat and, to use one of the script’s Hindi-Britishisms, ‘hiji biji’.
The more traditional Kathak scenes performed by Sophia Haque and choreographed by Gauri Sharma Tripathi are simple and legible. They serve to demonstrate the maintenance of traditional Kathak style in British mujra culture. (See Tanika Gupta’s published writing on the troubling social history of mujra dancing clubs in Britain—under-explored in the musical itself). Having learnt to dance in front of the TV, the character of Sita, newly arrived from Leeds, introduces a feisty, synthetic brand of Bollywood snapshot dancing. Beyoncé-esque hip-hop, belly-dancing and tango are all there. The resulting clash of agendas between guru and student / runaway is understandable. Perhaps this knot of so-called tradition and modernity defines the moment. But what Wah! Wah! Girls does not do is provide a choreographic way out.
During the Act 1 nautch scene seated nawabs saluted the dancing with cries of ‘Wah! Wah!’—but at the end of the show the audience in the Peacock Theatre didn’t.