In an unusual take on the spirit of Christmas, Hampstead Theatre has gone for a drama on the violent partition of India in 1947 as the subject for its festive season. However the risk pays off in what is an excellent dramatization of the politics of this turbulent period in history.
In Drawing the Line, Partition is told through the viewpoint of Cyril Radcliffe, the English lawyer who was carted off to India under Attlee's orders to divide Pakistan from India despite (or rather because of) having no prior experience of India whatsoever.
In India and with five weeks to finalise the borders of a sustainable Pakistan that will suit all parties, Radcliffe out of his depth and overwhelmed with personal politics and complex relationships between a host of stakeholders such as Nehru, Jinnah and Gandhi, all of whom are far more knowledgeable than him - and far more astute at manipulating the situation to get what they need.
Drawing the Line certainly ticks all the boxes in content and characters but at times in the first half this did feel like a dramatized documentary rather than a theatrical piece. I found it fascinating though but then I like historical fiction.
However this improved after the interval. With all the burden of exposition handled in the first half, the play was able to take flight. The characters and the relationships between them were able to impact the storyline, especially the affair between Nehru and Lady Mountbatten and the deteriorating relationship between Nehru and Gandhi.
Understandably, the central character Cyril Radcliffe remains overwhelmed and outshone by the charismatic Indian leaders around him. Though this makes sense from a narrative viewpoint and Tom Beard 's depiction of him is excellent, it does mean that it's hard to feel caught up in his personal story or to feel sorry for him that he is clearly the patsy in this set-up.
So it is the supporting cast of characters and the terrible situation they are all in that capture and hold the attention. The actors are superb, in particular Nehru (Silas Carson), Jinnah (Paul Bazely) and Gandhi (Tanveer Ghani). Their characters beautifully combine their Indian heritage with the fact that all three of them trained to be lawyers in England therefore knowing so much more about England and Englishmen than Radcliffe or even Mountbatten (another superb performance from Andrew Havill) knows about India and Indians.
The set design from Tim Hatley is wonderful also. Both Indian palaces and Indian poverty are beautifully reflected in his simple but elegant sets. And the violence of Partition is emotively reflected in the scarring of the border in flames across the set at the play's climax.
Drawing the Line is compulsive viewing and holds the attention completely. Howard Brenton's deft writing creates a web where personal relationships and national politics are played out with wit and drama. As a result, this isn't a dry, sterile play but one that is both absorbing and engaging.
Hampstead Theatre, London
To January 11, 2014