Phil Hopkins, Group Travel Editor & Theatre Correspondent
Cultural Comedy Is A DoubleEdged Sword
The vagaries of culture meld together to deliver a boiling cauldron of emotions: love, laughter, jealousy and moments of tenderness in Leeds Playhouse’s latest offering, the wonderful Asian comedy Happy Birthday Sunita.
At first I was slightly sidelined as the play unfolded: lots of in jokes spoken in Punjabi, clearly humorous, cultural reference points which the largely Asian audience loved but I didn’t have a clue!
However, as the production unfolded I came to realise that while I could not hope to understand everything, that very mystique not only became part of the attraction but, in some ways, the play’s very core!
My wife is from the Philippines and, in her country, the Filipino language, Tagalog, combines with English to produce ‘Taglish’. However, despite speaking zero Filipino, I invariably have a good grasp of what they are always talking about!
We must celebrate at all costs....even if Sunita doesn't really want to
And so it was last night as the five handed cast – portraying the Johal family – gather in their newly renovated kitchen to throw a surprise 40th birthday party for Sunita…..who doesn’t really want one! And therein begins the comedy and the pathos as confrontations erupt and masks begin to slip.
But, it is more than just a bundle of laughs because Harvey Virdi’s play, directed by Pravesh Kumar, takes a hard look at those strands of culture that not only enrich a nation, but also imprison parts of it, preventing some individuals from reaching their full potential.
You feel desperately sorry for Sunita (Bhawna Bhawsar), a brilliant scholar and once an Oxbridge candidate, but now full of resentment because she has obeyed family traditions, foregone the chance of a career as a physicist and stayed at home, only to be left on the shelf as she enters her fourth decade.
Brother Nav (Devesh Kishore) by contrast, is given all the opportunities as the oldest son even though he is not half as bright.
Gasps from the audience leave you in no doubt that cultural lines have been crossed. I loved Divya Seth Shah as the matriarch of the piece, mum Tejpal, herself a victim of an arranged marriage.
Divya Seth Shah (right) as family matriach, Tejpal, full of her own regrets
Her husband has returned to India to be with his mistress. She remains married but must now decide to have her own relationship with Cockney boy Maurice (Keiron Crook) if she is to have anything resembling a life as she approaches 60.
Harleen is the bubbly daughter in law (Rameet Rauli), desperate to have a career, equally desperate to avoid having babies and her husband and Tejpal’s son, Nav, commits sacrilege by cutting his hair, all in the name of pleasing his wife.
Everybody's friend, Harleen, tries to keep the party going! Photo by Ellie Kurttz
This was a fascinating piece that lasted just 30 minutes in the first half and 40 after the interval, leaving you time and energy for intense concentration and understanding. It provoked a lot of emotions within.
Sunita and Tejpal were certainly the strongest characterisations and, despite being on stage for a relatively short time, Keiron Crook as London boy Maurice, rapidly proved why he’d been in so many West End productions.
At first I wasn’t sure about giddy kipper Harleen but, by the end, I really liked her. She didn’t grow on me so much as become a fast producing virus!
This was a wonderful play and I will be ringing my Sikh friend to advise him that he ‘must go’. Virdi and Kumar have just presented him with a looking glass through which to witness his own life.
w50[Happy Birthday Sunita
Rifco Theatre Company in association with Watford Palace Theatre,
Courtyard, Leeds Playhouse
Last performance tonight