Theatre Royal Stratford East
Reviewed – 15th May 2018
“While the core ideas and questions of this piece were extremely interesting, they were at times a little overshadowed by unnecessary extras”
There are few pieces of theatre that manage to both approach and reasonably explore questions of life, death, personal and cultural identity, marriage and family all whilst managing to keep up a light exterior, but Pyar Actually at the Theatre Royal Stratford East seems to have cracked this rare formula. Written by and starring Sukh Ojla, this production tackles the complexities of life as a married woman, haunted by ghosts of what could have been. It would be easy for a show like this to become heavy or even a bit melancholy, but this is carefully avoided. I came away with the sense that there’s no point in sadness, because this is just life, with all its natural ups and downs.
One of the many unique elements of this piece is that it is essentially bilingual. Characters address each other, as well as the audience, in a mixture of English and Punjabi. Undeniably, the use of both alongside one another brings more depth; an insult in Punjabi could lose some of its meaning when translated, so why not just keep it in Punjabi? But don’t worry – bilingualism is far from being a prerequisite, the story still makes perfect sense if you just follow the English. Some of this show’s most interesting moments lie in its discussion of the links between language and identity. Bali’s efforts to learn Punjabi are an undisguised effort to connect to his roots and family history, but also to be able to engage with the language in the same easy and incidental way that Polly does.
While the core ideas and questions of this piece were extremely interesting, they were at times a little overshadowed by unnecessary extras. The incremental transformation of the backdrop from grey into a sunset was nice, but didn’t really add anything. Additionally, a couple of Simon Rivers’ (Bali) lines fell somewhat flat, which seemed odd considering the otherwise high quality of his performance.
The simple but effective staging worked well with the nature of the piece, but the stakes of the story itself sometimes felt a little unnaturally high. If the same simplicity applied to the narrative as well as the design, some elements of the story may have felt considerably less sidelined.
All in all, this is a lovely piece of theatre. It doesn’t shy away from some slightly harsh realities, and clearly isn’t scared of them either.
Reviewed by Grace Patrick
Photography by George Torode
Theatre Royal Stratford East until 19th May