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Review of Glitterball at Riverside Studios - What a wonderful surprise

Rated 🍯🍯🍯🍯

Yasmin Wilde as Sonia in Glitterball. Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz
Yasmin Wilde as Sonia in Glitterball. Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz

What a pleasant surprise Glitterball turned out to be! The teasers and promotions (and the name of the play) threw the bee off a little, to be honest. The bee went in expecting a sassy, sparkly, melodramatic chick-flick. The kind that makes for easy evening entertainment but lacks the potential to move. (What else do you make of a show that describes itself as " a whole lotta [sic] sparkle"?) It did not take long for the bee to abashedly realize it had prematurely judged a book by its cover. When curtains dropped for the interval, the bee remembers thinking, "Thank God it's only the interval!"

Glitterball is a veritable cornucopia of thought-provoking themes packaged into a delightful character study.

Sonia is half English and half Pakistani. She was raised in England by half of her two parental units, having been abandoned by the other half in early childhood. Divorced, she now raises half her progeny of two thankless teenage offspring, having been abandoned by the other. (Strangely ironic, isn't it? Does abandonment beget abandonment?)

Now, Sonia is about to turn fifty years old with the amused bewilderment and discomfiting helplessness of a person who has spent half a century living on this planet without a clue as to her biological and cultural roots. She grapples with the recent death of her mother as she simultaneously comes to terms with the unrequited nature of her own attachment to her children.

She grapples with her cultural identity after slowly realizing, over a lifetime as a mixed-race woman, that, far from being both white and brown, she is in fact neither white nor brown. She belongs neither here nor there; neither community will take her in as their own. Exploring these themes with boldness and blatancy, Yasmin Wilde delivers a play that is dark, disturbing but also somehow quite humorous. The bee loved it.

What is culture, anyway?

How do you make sense of your cultural identity when the colour of your skin, the build of your body, the shape of your eyes and the frame of your visage are completely at odds with the words you speak and the thoughts you think?

What is culture, anyway? Is it biologically inherited or absorbed from the environment? Is it within you or is it a choice you can make when you, say, decide to speak a particular language or cook a certain recipe or connect with a specific community?

As Sonia and her daughter navigate this bizarre thing called cultural identity, the bee felt sensitized to a mixed-race individual's wonder, or even helpless and insatiable curiosity, about who they are and how are they shaped by the bits of their heritage they left behind, whether by force or will.

The play's exploration of motherhood hit a nerve.

The theme the bee enjoyed the most was motherhood. What is this inexplicable force that makes parents, especially mothers, love (even unconditionally, at that) their ungrateful, selfish and sometimes plain bratty teenage kids?

Don’t most kids dream of breaking free from the clutches of their parents, finding their own selves, and making their own lives? Why do parents delude themselves by pretending they don't really know this in their hearts? Why don’t parents internalise this?

And even if the kids love their parents, don’t their own life, goals and aspirations usually take precedence over their parents’ hopes, dreams and happiness? In the western world, at least? So why are so many parents caught off guard when their kids turn out to, well, want their own lives and limit their engagement with their parental units?

And yet we all — or most of us at least — succumb to the irrepressible, insufferable biological programming that causes us to have children and put our all into raising them, only to feel miserably disappointed when we discover that they have brains of their own, ideas of their own, dreams of their own that don’t necessarily involve us.

Now the bee does not mean to come off as all cynical or to suggest that kids aren't worthwhile. The bee only means to speculate about the reasons that parents find themselves disappointed by unrequited love when this is a pattern that has persisted in the history of humankind since time immemorial. Yes, kids are an absolute delight and parenthood is a joy and all that. <Insert whatever other politically correct stuff you need to see to appease yourself.>

Case in point from the play (spoiler warning) — Ungrateful son moves out of mother’s house and into his father’s house because the mother wouldn’t let him play video games (he was addicted to the point that he once wet himself, fully consciously, to avoid having to go to the bathroom and interrupt his game). Now he won’t talk to her, let alone live with her. He cuts off all conversation. The ungrateful daughter of the mother (i.e. ungrateful son’s big sister) points out the ungrateful son’s selfishness to the mother and asks her to move on and focus her effort on other meaningful pursuits, to which the mother responds — and this was one of the most powerful and touching moments in the play for me — that motherhood simply doesn’t work that way. Read: mothers are biologically programmed to be screwed over by their kids (and also biologically programmed to live in the happy delusion that their kids won’t turn out to be the selfish brats that they are invariably genetically programmed to turn into at some point. Until they do).

"You shouldn't go on Tinder even though you're divorced, coping with your mother's death and have no one in your life right now who really cares about you," the daughter says to the mother. It's incredible just how little children seem to care about their parents' happiness, and twice as incredible that parents love, adore and miss their children anyway.

It all made me think about motherhood in a way I had never thought of before.

Part of my surprise is, of course, on account of the fact that I’m not a parent (and don’t feel particularly inclined to be one just yet) and therefore it was quite an eye-opener to be shown a mom’s perspective of parenthood in such compelling (and disturbing) terms. But another part of it was how the pain inherent in a parent-child relationship can be so powerfully transmitted intergenerationally, despite our best efforts to do better by our kids than our parents did by us.

The play touched on a number of other themes, but one in particular that hit a nerve for the bee was the sheer extent of egregiousness that humankind is capable of, and how it can affect one's ability to feel a sense of belonging with the human community at large. Sonia's amazingly calm tolerance of the injustices surrounding her life and her quiet acceptance of the inherent evil gene (for want of a better phrase) in humankind (including her own children), speaks to the resilience of the human spirit. Either that or it speaks to the infinite capacity of humans to live in denial and delusion (which as it turns out, can be excellent coping mechanisms too).

It is a wonder how Yasmin Wilde could marry such an intensely evocative emotional drama with, wait for it, comedy, of all things. Yes, the play really is funny without losing its ability to be emotionally moving. What's more, the stage design showed meticulous attention to detail, with just the right bit of wallpaper tearing off the walls and with flip flops strewed about just ever so slightly unevenly under a bench, creating the colours and airs of a family home bursting with memories, heartache and laughs all at once. Absolutely spectacular.

Four stars.

Watched October 2022 at Riverside Studios, London.

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