Review – Happy Birthday Sunita, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 6th July 2023

Happy Birthday SunitaThe trouble with a title like Happy Birthday Sunita is that it can give you all sorts of false expectations. Is this going to be something frothy and light, like a stage version of The Kumars at No 42? Or something punchier, maybe a Punjabi Abigail’s Party? Decades ago I saw a play called Happy Birthday by Marc Camoletti, with a plot description that sounded racy but in fact was one of the mildest, generic pieces of writing I can recall. So, I must tell you, gentle reader, that I assumed that Happy Birthday Sunita would be something similarly bland.

Happy birthdayBut, as you know, assume makes an ass out of u and me, and I am delighted to report that this is an entertaining, thought-provoking, and prejudice-challenging little nugget of drama. It is a little nugget though, coming in at barely over 1 hour 35 minutes including a 20 minute interval. I am a massive supporter of having an interval if possible, despite the current trend to perform shows all the way through without a break; but I was perhaps surprised that it wasn’t shown as a one-act play.

Tejpal in her kitchenIt’s Sunita’s 40th birthday, and her mum, brother and sister in law have come to celebrate with her. Dad is out in India, and has been for some years, but Sunita is convinced he will return for a surprise visit on this auspicious occasion. It’s also an opportunity for her mum, Tejpal, to show off her beautiful, brand spanking new kitchen. Sunita doesn’t want this party, so she skulks upstairs whilst the others make the preparations. Nav, her brother, has forgotten to collect the special eggless birthday cake from the shop, much to Tejpal’s annoyance – but she makes a phone call and says that everything will be sorted. They’re just about to sit down for dinner when a surprise guest arrives – kitchen-fitter Maurice. What’s he doing there? You’ll have to watch the show to find out!

Party tableBeautifully written and structured by Harvey Virdi, and crisply directed by Pravesh Kumar, from a quiet start the play builds to a rich crescendo, reminiscent of an Indian Ayckbourn, with its subtle digs at family relationships and surprising domestic outcomes. Nav’s wife Harleen finds it difficult to integrate with her husband’s family, no matter how enthusiastic she tries to come across; although the two met at a Sikh disco at university, their differing backgrounds and interests form a barrier between them. This is nicely contrasted with the other “outsider”, Maurice, an east London geezer made good, whose background Nav challenges with allegations of a racist past; but it turns out that Maurice can speak Punjabi better than Harleen.

Prosecco timeThere are some amusing nods to racial stereotypes; what appears to the Brits as garish taste, with the multicolour lighting in the kitchen akin to an Indian restaurant, the picture of the guru on the wall that lights up and plays an irritating tune every so often to remind you to give him a blessing, and the fact that the beautiful new kitchen is primarily for show and the old kitchen has been rebuilt at the back for continued general use. You lot do love your extensions! claims Maurice, with a mixture of latent racism and appreciation of the profit it gives him. And 40 year old, unmarried Sunita is a picture of barely-suppressed resentment at having been forbidden to go to university because she was just meant to become a stay-at-home wife and mum. She is jealous of the opportunities that both Nav and Harleen had by being able to go off and find their own path.

Dance timeAnd if there is a lesson (terrible word) to be learned from the play it’s how vital it is for everyone to be who and what they want to be; to choose education, or to choose to be in a relationship, to choose whether to have children, or to choose to abandon religious conventions. Everyone learns; and by the end of the play, all the characters have moved on, with greater self-awareness, and all in a better place. It’s a really optimistic piece of writing!

Harleen and TejpalEach member of the cast puts in a terrific performance. Divya Seth Shah is excellent as Tejpal, the dominant matriarch who wants the best for everyone, always giving the same little shriek if her prosecco is topped up too high, cringing at Harleen’s overenthusiastic hugs, but not above having her own agenda when it suits her. I really enjoyed Rameet Rauli’s performance as Harleen, fashion-conscious (unlike the rest of the family), image-conscious, and health-conscious, but only if it’s part of her image. She superbly conveys that slight awkwardness of being part of a family that doesn’t really accept her – and that she’s not always sure she wants to accept them back.

SunitaBhawna Bhawsar portrays Sunita as a character who has lost her spark; revelling in the hope that her father still loves her, she struggles to find her own identity. You sense that Sunita truly has some mental health issues and she’s on the cusp of something serious if she’s not careful. Devesh Kishore’s Nav is a smart presentation of someone who primarily looks after himself, the son who was always considered top dog in the family; and Keiron Crook is excellent as Maurice, the catalyst for change, storming in where angels fear to tread, and creating an entertainingly culturally different element for the family to cope with.

Harleen and SunitaProduced by the Rifco Theatre Company, the show is halfway through its tour and after it’s completed its week at Northampton, travels on to Leeds, Warwick, Ipswich and Peterborough. Funny, sad and challenging, it’s a production full of heart and gives you a lot to talk about on the way home. What a waste of a beautiful birthday cake though. Eggless too!

Production photos by Ellie Kurttz

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

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