Satinder Kaur Chohan
Arts Theatre and touring
This Punjab-set play, which opened at the Contact theatre, Manchester and now reaches London, is a strong piece of political theatre that takes on a whole range of issues but especially the disastrous effect of the 'Green Revolution' in Indian agriculture of the 1960s and 70s which left the land sour and exhausted, and the introduction of genetically modified crops which were supposed to provide new prosperity.
Here the hard facts are encapsulated in the drama of a single Sikh family. Bhasker Patel plays a farmer facing disaster if he doesn't have a bumper crop, Goldy Notay the daughter who devotes herself to him while her brother (Gurpreet Singh) gets drunk and does nothing except go out with his mates. Enter entrepreneur and loan shark (Ravin J Ganatra) encouraging farmer Baba to take out more loans, buy more chemicals he can't afford, then his son (Amarjit Bassan) the daughter's former secret romantic liaison. The plotting is like a Victorian melodrama with the loan shark like the wicked landlord and one feels the daughter's virtue in danger but this is not quite such a simple story and it is packed with serious content, though that is not always easily assimilated into the story, especially when many of the most important points are given to the whisky-soaked brother in apparent moments of sobriety. It is asking too much of the actor to make us believe in the character. The baddie and his son have an easier time, as catalysts they don't need to be so rounded. Patel and Notay suggest a complex relationship between father and daughter but the pressures of the political story don't allow us to see it in detail there is so much information to get over.
This play has not yet solved the problems of packing such an important message into a tight-knit play. This is a personal story standing in for an epic disaster. In a programme note the dramatist makes her points very succinctly. This is a disaster for thousands, not one man, and this microcosm lacked that dimension.
Chohuan's writing moves from domestic interchange to poetic floweriness and has not quite managed to fuse them. There is an unevenness here which perhaps could have been deliberately exploited dramatically but, like a scene change in which a dozen or so cotton plants are slowly placed around the stage, it seems awkward. But if there is fault with the form there is no doubt this is a very real story, carefully researched on the ground in the Punjab. As a piece of agit-prop theatre it gets its facts over and makes a valid, if not an entirely successful two hours in the theatre.
If seeing it at the Arts performances start at 7pm, not as formerly announced on the theatre website and an early flyer - the confusion no fault of Kali Theatre. Ending there on May 17 it then tours to Birmingham Rep (21 - 24 May); Southampton Nuffield (2-3 June) West Yorkshire Playhouse (5-7 June).
Reviewer: Tom Howard