Where's My Desi Soulmate?
Sonia Likhari and Harvey Virdi
Theatre Royal Stratford East
Framed by Cherry's television dating show, for which the house becomes the studio audience - "Let's hear it 'Cherry! Cherry!'" - this is a play that takes a look at modern dating practice and some that is as old as the hills. Conceived by its director Pravesh Kumar, also artistic director of Rifco Arts which sets out to stage new writing relevant to Britain's South Asian communities, its very contemporary stories could originate in any area of British life, though their ethnicity gives them an added colour. There are the girls who are best mates, but one always seems to pinch the new guy off the other; the male cousins where one takes over the other's latest prospect; the widow out there looking for romance; the successful banker who has her smart apartment but no matching man and even the middle aged gay virgin who, now that his mother's death has left him free to be himself, is looking for love.
Forget those traditional marriages arranged by your parents: this is a world of speed-dating sessions and computer-dating sites. No longer are young South Asians being introduced over a samosa and a milky cup of tea - and no longer should we assume they're straight. Playing a baker's dozen of characters between them, four actors keep changing roles in what sometimes seems like a sequence of clever revue sketches but develops into three parallel story strands as well as the framing television show with its studio action and vox pop interviews, expert adviser plugging his book and smooth-talking presenter. The performers' transformations are so effective that you are not aware of doubling and sorting who plays what is largely a matter of body shape!
For most of the time the audience is carried along by a ripple of laughter without making the pain of these characters seem any less real. There is Simon Rivers' Black Country divorcee, realising what a bad dad he's been and making up sexual successes to keep face with his workmates, and the same actor's pharmacist, covering up for the faults of the assistant he's keen on but so inept in all his approaches (he's also the Studio Floor Manager doing the warm up). There's cousin Josh with his pelvic pointer and lost-looking gay postie Joggie (both Ankur Bahl, who's also the love-doctor author and other roles). TV celebrity Cherry is doubled by Sharona Sassoon with put-upon Essex girl Preeti, the pharmacist's assistant, while Pooja Ghia is not only her man-grabbing mate but the banker and a wonderfully overblown widow Shusheila.
These characters may have embraced a contemporary world but we are gently reminded of their Asian background - and not just with bangla music and some Hindi expressions: there is Joggi's filial devotion, caring for a sick mother since the age of fourteen, and Rajen's pharmacy is a family business. More forcefully the actions bursts into Bollywood to express Shusheila's dreams of romance in movie dance sequence that delights the audience (though it has a very bitter twist to its tail). Even that is topped by Joggi's equivalent when he imagines the man of his dreams in a brilliant Fred Astaire pastiche. This is music and dance being used to express emotion and yearning in a show that isn't a musical, which makes its effect that much stronger. It's worth the ticket and a trip to Stratford just for that Hollywood routine that ranges from ballet to tap through ballroom, but its poignancy is the result of the rest of the show.
At the Theatre Royal until 29th March 2009
Reviewer: Howard Loxton