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Lions and Tigers review at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London – ‘illuminating’

The cast of Lions and Tigers at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London. Photo: Marc Brenner The cast of Lions and Tigers at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London. Photo: Marc Brenner
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The personal and historical are intimately connected in Tanika Gupta’s new play. Lions and Tigers – which opens the Festival of Independence at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – draws on the life of her great uncle.

It’s 1927, India, and anger at a brutal British colonial rule is growing. Dinesh Gupta, frustrated by the non-cooperation tactics of Mahatma Gandhi, finds purpose in the violent opposition of the Bengali revolutionaries. Gupta (the writer) intercuts scenes of Dinesh’s family life with debates between leading figures like Ghandi, Subhash Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru, future first prime minister of India.

Gupta draws sharp parallels with the Irish fight for independence, while stripping away the myth of a ‘civilised’ British. What comes across strongly is the sense of a youth revolution. As a gawky, young Dinesh, Shubham Saraf conveys the buzz of being part of a movement, but also flashes of fear in the face of its reality.

The cast playing Dinesh’s family and friends bring warmth to Gupta’s incisive account of the web of politics and everyday abuses in which India was caught. They catch the human cost of such a high-stakes cause. Meanwhile, Esh Alladi stands out as a Ghandi made of wily steel when out-arguing British viceroys.

However, while Pooja Ghai’s fluid direction and the drumbeat of Arun Ghosh’s music energises the Wanamaker stage, Lions and Tigers never fully escapes its origins in letters and Gupta’s grandfather’s 500-page journal. It’s a powerfully illuminating look at history, but it sometimes feels bogged down in words, characters too often relegated to mouthpieces.

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New play shedding an illuminating, personal light on the fight for Indian independence