The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Jun 1 2023 | By More

★★★☆☆   Reassuring

Festival Theatre: Tue 30 May – Sat 3 Jun 2023
Review by Hugh Simpson

In many ways The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel at the Festival Theatre is exactly what you would expect. In other ways, it very much goes the extra mile.

The play (from Simon Friend Productions, with Jenny King, Trafalgar, Gavin Kalin and David Adkin) certainly has a ready-made audience. Writer Deborah Moggach has based her new stage version on her 2004 novel These Foolish Things, but it also owes an obvious debt to its 2011 filmed adaptation, which shares the play’s name.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel Pic Mikal Ludlow

Which is hardly surprising, as the movie was such an unexpectedly massive hit. This was at least partly because of its story of a group of retired people who felt marginalised in the UK, finding themselves, love and a purpose in a run-down hotel in India. This tapped into an older demographic who are generally ignored by mainstream cinema. That same audience already tends to be much better catered for by big-budget touring theatre.

While not just a retread of the film, the play does trade on the audience’s goodwill and familiarity with the source, something that is clearly evident in a decidedly slow first half that tries the patience. A considerably longer second act then tries to pack in too much plot, in an oddly structured play which – despite the sympathetically drawn characters and frequent gentle humour – is not necessarily the most profound or satisfying piece of drama.

However, there are several ways in which the production scores extremely highly. Despite having a cast that has undergone changes during the tour, director Lucy Bailey has fashioned an exceptionally tight ensemble feel, with the timing of the dialogue absolutely first-rate, and the acting space notably well utilised.


The cast of recognisable faces cannot be faulted for their efforts. Belinda Lang’s spiky, three-times divorced Madge, whose main consolation in growing old is that she ‘just doesn’t give a fuck’, is an excellent, rounded comic performance; there is a wonderfully human believability to Tessa Peake-Jones’s initially mousy Evelyn.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel Pic Mikal Ludlow

Both Lang and Peake-Jones have had long careers that encompass much more than their identification with sitcoms. Similarly, Paul Nicholas’s television comedy celebrity should not overshadow the fact that he has been a West End leading man for over 50 years; there are huge reservoirs of experience behind his stoic, quietly disappointed Douglas.

Eileen Battye has less to work with as his wife Jean, but still comes across as human – something which could certainly be said of Graham Seed’s performance as the outwardly appalling, lecherous bigot Norman. Seed (still The Archers’ Nigel Pargetter to so many) manages to invest the character with a twinkle and expert timing.


Paola Dionisotti’s apparently distracted Dorothy and Marlene Sidaway’s seemingly intolerant, ultimately multifaceted Muriel are also object lessons in how to play characters that could be comic types as real people.

Despite all the recognisable performers on show, possibly the best thing about the production is Rekha John-Cheriyan as the widowed hotel owner Mrs Kapoor. She has a fantastic presence, real comic gifts, and an ability to switch the tears on and off at the drop of a hat, that all give what could be a stereotypically smothering South Asian mother real depth.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel Pic Mikal Ludlow

The other Indian characters do edge uncomfortably close to caricature on occasion, but are well played by the energetic Nishan More (hotel manager Sunny), Shila Iqbal, Tiran Aakel, Kerena Jagpal, Anant Varman and the particularly impressive Harmage Singh Kalirai.

There is a budget that positively screams West End try-out rather than standard touring production, but it is well used, with Mic Pool’s sound, Oliver Fenwick’s lighting and Kuljit Bhamra MBE’s West-meets-East music impressing. Colin Richmond’s huge, astonishingly sturdy and versatile set is a thing of wonder.

troubling elements

Despite the creditable way that the play foregrounds older people, there are some troubling elements. Important questions about the legacy of colonialism are raised, but then quietly dropped as if they are too much to handle. Any criticism of the UK tends to be of the ‘grumpy old man’ school, with the eventual outcome being uncomfortably close to the tired old ‘white saviour’ narrative, as a group of plucky Brits solve the various problems of those foreigners who cannot even get their plumbing right.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel Pic Mikal Ludlow

There are attempts to give the Asian characters more agency, but they come across as afterthoughts as much as the way the passing of two decades since the original book is signalled by the odd reference to Zoom calls. Norman’s dropping in of the word ‘woke’, meanwhile, is not even deserving of the cheap laugh it receives.

In the end, however, it is refreshing to see an experienced cast given a chance to play people their age, and for an audience to see them (and feel seen themselves). That is exactly what this production is aiming for, and could have accomplished it without trying very hard; it is to its great credit that it is done with so much commitment.

Running time: Two hours and 25 minutes (including one interval)
Festival Theatre, 13-29 Nicolson St, EH8 9FT
Tuesday 30 May – Saturday 3 June 2023
Evenings at 7.30 pm, Matinees Thurs & Sat at 2.30 pm
Tickets and details: Book here.


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