Many cities have stark socio-economic contrasts. Take London for example: one moment you could be standing amongst some of the most obscenely expensive shops and houses, and twenty minutes later, see something extraordinarily different. Katherine Boo’s 2012 National Book Award-winning account of her time in a Mumbai slum depicts something I could never relate to. The poverty that is illustrated in Behind the Beautiful Forevers is real and it is harrowing but, to the residents, it is their lives. For many however, there is still hope that against all odds they can do and be more.

The vast stage in the National’s Olivier Theatre makes a great home for David Hare’s stage adaptation of the book. The design team and director Rufus Norris have created an almost intimate feeling in Annawaal, the slum that here houses three families with strong and quite terrifying foul-mouthed matriarchs, and their neighbours. Annawaal is attached to Mumbai airport and its surrounding luxury hotels, capturing the bustling tourist trade whilst our characters (based on real people) make a living by sorting through recyclables and, often, prostitution. A projected airplane zooms across the audience’s head at infrequent intervals so as to remind us of the neighbouring contrasts of the slum and the both literal and physical way out. An unexpected yet exciting selection of 90s Eurobeat launches Behind the Beautiful Forevers, thanks to sound designer Paul Arditti. I had a little boogie in my seat but don’t think anyone noticed.

Katrina Lindsay and Paule Constable’s respective stage and lighting designs aren’t anything earth-shattering, but do a perfectly good job in taking us to Mumbai whilst allowing us to remain in our comfortable albeit dusty seats. A revolving stage turns from village to police station to hospital, whilst various other props produce a court setting. Constable’s lighting is effective as spotlights zoom from one character to another, highlighting their plight.

The plot itself is ever so largely soap opera-esque. Zehrunisa Husain (Meera Syal) and her son Abdul (Shane Zaza) have high hopes of recycling enough rubbish to fund a proper house. Asha Waghekar (Stephanie Street) seeks to steal government anti-poverty funds to better herself and her family, while her daughter Manju (Anjana Vasan) reads Virginia Woolf (though she understands none of it) in her bid to become the slum’s first female graduate. Fatima (Thusitha Jayasundera) has had enough of being defined by a physical difference and her deep envy and bitterness at Zehrunisa’s apparent superiority threatens to destroy the lives of both families.

There’s much humour in this, mostly from Street and Syal. Sometimes I had to remind myself, particularly at the beginning of the production, just how serious and damaging the situation is. Everything is so blatant and uncompromising; one can’t help but feel complacent and almost chummy towards most of the characters. I haven’t read Boo’s book so I don’t know whether this is a translation from her time and fondness for the people she met, or an intentional distraction on behalf of Hare and/or Norris. Whichever approach was taken and why doesn’t really matter; the comic relief is welcome, especially at the darker moments in the second half of the show. Just like a soap opera (but quite a bit more serious than Hollyoaks), the people’s lives are gripping.

Syal’s relentless swearing and her feud with Jayasundera make for the largest and most riveting plot point of all. Syal’s downfall is subtle but ultimately remains just as devastating and Jayasundera’s fate isn’t easier to take because she’s a bitter old bitch. Everybody has a reason for the way they act – good or bad – and Behind the Beautiful Forevers shows that money and power play a large part in it.

This is perhaps an overly long show at just shy of three hours but it’s a welcome change to the National’s usual schedule. Syal, Jayasundera and Street are all on top form and I particularly liked seeing Jayasundera play a judge, demonstrating some very impressive and versatile acting skills. The younger members of the cast are also superb.

Boo should be proud of how well she has portrayed these people. There’s much to feel disturbed at here, but it’s real life and provides a truth that should be communicated to the rest of the world. The agenda-led police and medical services are perhaps the most shocking and destructive force here – even more so as it is not limited to this area of the world.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is playing at the National Theatre until 13 April 2015. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre website.

Image by Richard Hubert Smith