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The House of In Between (Theatre Royal Stratford East, London): Review

house of in between Band of sisters. The cast of 'The House of In Between' . Photograph: Courtesy of Robert Day.

The House of In Between is a sumptuous thriller. A ravish of sight and spirit beyond expectation, giving a bristling voice to a hidden community.

Hijra are non-gendered people, often castrated men, who present themselves as women, and follow the cult of Shiva. Uma runs a Hijra clan in a little known city in India, where they cling on to their traditions as they try to survive a changing and hostile society. One day, young boy Dev collides into their house. But what secrets are both him and Uma hiding in The House of In Between, and do these threaten to tear the clan apart?

house of in between

Band of sisters. The cast of ‘The House of In Between’ . Photograph: Courtesy of Robert Day.

Writing

Theatre Royal Stratford East is one of my favourite theatres because not only do they programme diverse theatre that chimes with the strong identities in and around the area, but because the quality of theatre there is always astonishing, with shows like The Etienne Sisters and Gutted proving that point. It’s disingenuous to describe it as a “hidden gem” because it’s not that at all; it’s been established and thriving for quite some time. If you’ve not heard of it before, it’s because you haven’t gotten out there yet. In their continuation of excellent programming, Sevan K. Greene (who I first came across as part of Line Up and wrote Fear in a Handful of Dust) brings their new play The House of In Between to the acclaimed theatre, resulting in an another thrilling and brilliantly written and produced piece of theatre, regardless of its “minority” subject.

The sheer glory of The House of In Between is that it doesn’t make a massive or shallowly voyeuristic deal about the minority community its based within. Regardless of its scope to and indulgence in exploring LGBTQ and related issues, The House of In Between ultimately is a drama/thriller about family, community, tradition, and identity that’s written with astounding complexity and character. But it doesn’t ignore or belittle the cultural foundation either. We’re given some wonderful background to Hijra and the cult of Shiva, only to then watch them, through the context of the narrative’s development, explore and tear apart tradition, prejudice, and gender identity with provocative aplomb. But The House of In Between’s politics, as fascinating and challenging as they can be, are not solely what the play is about. As well as these challenging examinations, Greene pens a taut drama happening within this community, providing opportunities for the story to really twist and turns with unique and surprising crescendos. Characters are written with detail and observation, and thought their personalities are all very different from each other, they never feel contrived. Greene’s focus on portraying a character as a person and not a plot device is so strong that the dynamic among the clan is electric, intriguing, and always believable. The balance between the unavoidable and important political issues, shining a spotlight on the Hijra community, and writing a fully fledged and quicksilver writing, is perfectly struck here.

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‘Dev’ine intervention. Lucie Shorthouse as Dev in ‘The House of In Between’. Photograph: Courtesy of Robert Day.

There are a few minor faults with the writing. Some dialogues feel a little stilted and forced, sometimes due to delivery. Furthermore, Act II doesn’t feel as tight or as fluid as Act I. But this is always an issue when a powder-keg narrative has plot threads coming together in the latter half. Otherwise, the overall result is an absolutely exhilarating piece.

Overall, there’s really nothing quite like The House of In Between. It’s a play that challenges your perceptions of gender and sexuality, opening you up to a gorgeously portrayed subculture, whilst being simultaneously thrilling. It’s been a long time since I’ve sat so enrapt in a theatre that I hardly move for the entirety of a show.

Direction & Production

Naturally, any production of The House of In Between was always going to need to summon the vibrant colour and history of India, and Diego Pitarch’s set absolutely does this. It’s a straightforward concept and build that is brilliantly executed and works so well with the show’s lighting and projection design. Pitarch’s flats of painted gauze slide in and out to create different scenes. Polytheistic murals and flaking painted walls tower up over the stage. But what makes these come alive is Jame Whiteside’s lighting and Tapio Snellman’s projection, where lights and images are projected on and through them, creating, at times, a dazzling and dreamlike ebb of colour, movement, and haunting shadowwork, making Pitarch’s set look like it’s alive. Bits of pre-rendered projected backdrop are also done incredibly well, never distracting from the action and being of top-quality CGI. Even here, there’s hints of Bollywood flare that feeds knowingly into the maelstrom of energies.

As dance is also an integral art of Hijra culture, Seeta Patel’s choreography is utterly sublime, blending traditional and modern dance into something completely captivating. Complementing this is Arun Ghosh’s luscious original music: again a fusion of old and new, spurring on Patel’s swirls of movement and colour. Ghosh’s overall sound design, also adds a cinematic underscoring and aural sense of tension at points that really boosts moments in the production, draped in Lucy Anderson’s kaleidoscopic costume.

Pooja Ghai’s direction knows how to bring out the maximum amount of emotion and energy at any given point in The House of In Between. Thrills are tense and unpredictable, whilst tender moments are slow, touching, and heartbreaking. There’s seldom a wrong footing with regards to pacing and making the show tremolo with activity and verve.

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When you’re good to mama… Esh Alladi (left) and Lucie Shorthouse (right). Phorograph: Courtesy of Robert Day.

Cast

All the cast are so natural in their “unnatural” roles, tapping into Greene’s portrayal of characters as real people even if on the fringes of society. Each indulge in personal moments of pathos and vulnerability that are really disarming and entrancing to watch. Together, the vibe between them is vivacious and joyous: they really do feel like a band of bickering but deeply loving sisters. They’re movement and dancing ability is also tremendous, matching their acting flare with astonishing strides.

Really standing out, however, is Esh Alladi as Uma. There is always a sinister secrecy and remorse in every moment of Alladi’s performance, making them enigmatic and unpredictable, especially in moments where stately matriarch can combust into indomitable adversary. Alladi gets into Uma’s complexity, darkness, and troubled spite with grueling determination, making them a terrifying and charged keystone of The House of In Between’s power and drive.

Lucie Shorthouse as Dev is also intriguing as the deceptive catalyst that turns the clan upside down. There’s always a charm of innocent enthusiasm, but a constant veiled and yearning ulterior motive. Shourthouse’s desperate chemistry with Alladi is also tantalising, as Shourthouse’s boldness is countered with an uneasy maternal warmth from Alladi. Between them, you get the real sense of Shorthouse tugging Alladi away from the already fraying family of Hijra, and injecting a real spike of questioning and conflict that crowns the show.

Verdict

A supreme piece of theatre. Drama, sass, and striking production, The House of In Between is a crucial and sensational show.

The House of In Between plays at Theatre Royal Stratford East, London, E15 1BN, until 30 April 2016. Tickets are £7 – £23.50. To book, visit www.stratfordeast.com.