Friday 4th May 2018 at West Yorkshire Playhouse.
In The Game of Love and Chai, Nigel Planer takes the framework of Marivaux’s Eighteenth Century farce and updates it, retaining the mistaken identity plot but modernising characters and reference points. This farce finds merit in bringing another much needed BAME story to our stages, with a modern Asian family at the centre. A love of Bollywood allows for some lovely moments of comedy as characters exaggeratedly fall for one another while dramatically miming along to their favourite songs – this refreshing new angle is definitely one of the winning features of the production. In brief, Rani (Sharon Singh) is under duress to marry Raj (Adam Samuel-Bal). Her cousin Sita (Kiren Jogi) and mother Kamala-Ji (Goldy Notay) have romantic notions of good old fashioned connections and financial worth while Rani is more interested in marrying for love or not at all. She resolves to test this suitor and switches places with Sita, intending to observe her potential life partner from a safe distance. Unbeknown to her, Raj feels much the same and instructs his unlicensed Uber driver Nitin (Ronny Jhutti) to trade places. It’s all very predictable of course, with the mistaken identity leading to confusion and worry but naturally, Sita and Nitin fall for one another just as Rani and Raj do. A predictable plot does not a fate seal in farce though – a lack of hilarity does.What’s frustratingly missing here is a sense of continued confusion and revelation – the plot lines are laid bare very early on and there’s nothing new added along the way. We’re either watching Raj and Rani or Sita and Nitin, but never do the four offer us any thrilling crossover. The staging is too simplistic to allow for any impressive cross-cutting so we’re left swaying between two couples checking in with the family or the businessman quarrelling with driver. Classic slapstick doesn’t really make an appearance but for a quick punch-up. Innuendo is replaced with more overt sexualisation and the production favours loud, proclamatory performances over all else. Modern references and generous use of swearing and insults from the pub offer up a dated trope to a contemporary audience but unfortunately, in doing so, much of the sophistication of ye olde farces drops away. Word play is difficult to spot when it should be celebrated royally – references to TOWIE, twats, Uber and Primark could of course co-exist with a sophisticated script, but that’s not the case here.Planer works hard to celebrate modern revisions to a classic style, but the focus on creating walking stereotypes of millennials works to the detriment of the piece in that the characters are not particularly likeable. Farces are naturally peopled with stock characters and monochrome supporting performances but usually they’re funny enough to soften the rough edges of their swift and disposable creation. There are laughs here, for sure – but not enough and not frequently enough. Rani is so fixated on declaring her total independence and distrust of men as a successful solicitor that Singh’s dismissive, upright characterisation makes her appear distant even when surrendering to feelings. Sita is a modern vision of the dating game; over-inflated ego, a confident dresser, declaring sexual prowess like her order at the chippy. Jogi plays the role in a way which is funny and charismatic in places, but the writing lacks. Rani’s brother Sunny (Deven Modha) is a tepid representation of an LGBT character; effeminate and sardonic, he provides commentary while ‘slut-dropping’ and drooling over Beyoncé. It’s empowering to see an Asian gay man depicted in a love story, I just wish he were the exception to the cardboard cut-out acceptance. That said, Modha gets some of the biggest laughs with his wonderfully underwhelmed handling of his sister and mother’s scheming.Raj is the best written character, carrying a sincerity missing from the concoction of others; Samuel-Bal plays him as a handsome bumbling fool with good intentions and his hopeless devotion to Rani is both sweet and funny to watch as it unfolds – his desperation to win her over does also give him an insipid air at times though. Notay plays the ambitious matriarch well but again, the character is loosely constructed and doesn’t make up for it in humour. By far the best performance comes in the swirling vision of Ronny Jhutti as Nitin. This is a well written character; a man of no status and no power who takes full advantage of his fifteen minutes of pseudo importance. He’s loud, he’s slippery and he’s living life to the full while he can. Yes, he’s very much the drunken, flailing lecherous uncle type, but the character is filled out nicely by Jhutti to make him far more funny and entertaining than gross or risible. Some of the best scenes are those between the unstoppable and melodramatic Jogi and Jhutti.This is an ambitious piece which seeks to bring a much loved classic style to new audiences. Director Jatinder Verma handles the space simply but well and Claudia Mayer’s set is perfect in its simplicity of a classic garden set-up with hedges formed into arches providing two simple entrance and exit points. There are some strong performances within the cast, with the turbo-powered physicality from the funniest characters providing a nicely reassuring source of comedy. Most importantly, this production commendably brings new ideas and new cultures to the paradigm but it leaves some key ingredients out of the updated recipe. A farce of mistaken identity is a tale as old as time and it makes few claims to depth of characterisation, but its job is therefore to offer great hilarity and delightful twists and turns along the way in place of that depth we’d expect from other genres. The reason the farce attracts audiences is the promise of big laughs and unfortunately, this production doesn’t deliver on the one factor which secures an audience for this kind of show.
This production if The Game of Love and Chai is presented by Tara Arts and as this review has been published after its final performance in Leeds, there’s no ticket link to add here.