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Happy Birthday Sunita

Harvey Virdi
Rifco Arts and Watford Palace Theatre in association with Arena Theatre Wolverhampton
Watford Palace Theatre

Ameet Chana as Nav, Clara Indrani as Sunita, Shabana Azmi as Tejpal, Goldy Notay as Harleen and Russell Floyd as Maurice

Today, Sunita is forty and her mum Tejpal (played by Indian film star Shabana Azmi) plans to surprise her with a party. Sunita’s sister-in-law Harleen (Goldy Notay) brings champagne (“It’s prosecco,” husband Nav corrects her), balloons to blow up and a Happy Birthday decoration and Tejpal has cooked the food.

But where's Sunita? And where’s the birthday cake that Tejpal ordered? Nav (Ameet Chana) forgot to pass on the message that Harleen should collect it and now the shop’s shut. Things look like building to farce-like confusion.

Actually, Sunita has come home already, a bit upset it seems, and gone up to her bedroom. The audience knows that but the Johal family don’t. They hazard that the council office where she works as a planner has given her a party or taken her to the pub.

But mum is worried. Sunita wasn’t social, never had any friends.

While brother and sister-in-law are pulling her to pieces, Sunita slips in unnoticed and starts to make herself a sandwich. They suddenly realise she has heard it all.

Not noticing things seems to be something the Johal family is good at, and deliberately refusing to see. That may sometimes stretch credibility but it is essential to the plot and gives a farce-like impetus to a comedy that is a sharp piece of social satire.

Harvey Virdi dissects the attitudes of people living in two cultures, the conflicts between preserving traditional ways and western lifestyle.

Nav is something high-flying in mobile 'phones, his wife a designer in a fashion company soon to launch her own collection. Their father, in touch by Skype each Friday, has gone back to India where he is building a big new house for his family.

Tejpal has an elegant new kitchen (Colin Falconer’s design will make you envious). With its backlit cabinets, smart island unit and everything the latest but, copying other well-off house-proud Indian housewives, her old kitchen has been set up in the garage. Roti-cooking outdoors there won’t spread into the house and an unused dream kitchen will stay spotless.

This proves to be a very awkward birthday party full of discoveries and revelations. While it is the younger generation who seem to be most westernised in dress and behaviour, it is they who have the biggest shock when they find out what their mother’s plans are.

With this bunch of lively actors, director Pravesh Kumar creates a real bickering but loving family. Clara Indrani makes her stage debut as the sullen Sunita, who suddenly comes alive in a spot of Bhangra dancing with her brother. Goldy Notay and Ameet Chana capture the deeper feeling below Nav and Harleen’s contentions, she career-obsessed but dutifully cooking food he is too full too eat (having already sneaked back to eat his mother’s cooking) though he does try to fit in with her trendy lifestyle.

Shabana Azmi plays mother Tejpal with poise and subtlety, calm but determined, and Russell Floyd as Maurice, the builder who installed the kitchen who now turns up with roses and the missing birthday cake, has the same quiet authority (even when it comes to fisticuffs) as the outsider who underlines so many home truths.

Happy Birthday Sunita is played in a mixture of English and a little Punjabi (there a few laughs for which you need it but not many). It is very funny.

Happy Birthday Sunita will be touring in the UK to Wolverhampton, Leeds, Oldham, Brentford, Colchester and Gravesend before going off to Dubai and Mumbai at the end of October.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton