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Happy Birthday Sunita! at Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch

You know those plays where a major family occasion occurs, such as a funeral, a wedding, or a milestone birthday, and various people who haven’t seen each other in years if not decades suddenly find themselves spending a lot of time with one another? Sooner if not later, the penny drops and they realise quite why they’ve avoided having anything to do with each other for so long (to put it mildly, they don’t get along) but various proverbial skeletons in proverbial closets make their appearance and it all ends up being very shouty and unpleasant, but also a cathartic release. Well, this isn’t one of those plays, although you’d be forgiven for thinking it might go in that direction after the first few minutes.

Happy Birthday Sunita. Photo Ellie Kurttz.
Happy Birthday Sunita. Photo Ellie Kurttz.

Sunita (Bhawna Bhawsar) is moody and dissatisfied: she holds down a full-time job but whatever it is she does in the planning department at the local council, it isn’t exactly something she wants to talk about at length (or indeed at all), which contrasts with her sister-in-law Harleen (Rameet Rauli), who works “in fashion” but finds fulfilment in her work, or at least comes across as though she does, and frankly, there’s no reason to doubt her. Sunita has made it clear she doesn’t want a birthday party. Her mother Tejpal (Divya Seth Shah) sets about putting one together anyway, which, from Sunita’s perspective, is yet another episode in a lifelong storyline of not being listened to, her opinions and wishes disregarded, ostensibly for the greater good.

Nav (Devesh Kishore), Sunita’s brother, also seems infinitely more content with his lot in life, and the arrival of Maurice (Keiron Crook) turns out to be more than just a family friend popping round with the birthday cake. The first half is refreshingly brief, if only because it is after the interval when the production really hits its stride, with the exposition of a wide range of human emotions. Set entirely in the kitchen, front room and dining area of the family home, Tejpal’s new kitchen, complete with under-cabinet remote control lighting (shoutout to Colin Falconer’s set design), seems to be a metaphor for a new chapter in her personal life – that is, change and transformation inside and out.

Some excellent punchlines bring the house down in what is effectively a comedy show with elements of social commentary – rather than the other way round, allowing the show to express poignancy without sentimentality. Perhaps a few too many themes are explored only at surface level, which occasionally gives the script the feel of being an exercise in meeting certain criteria. For instance, X says Y must be a lesbian. Y replies they are not, end of. And so the show moves on, the LGBT+ box being ticked, and one is left wondering whether it should have bothered, or otherwise tackled the subject more deeply.

There are some lines in Punjabi, untranslated, and while those who understood them appreciated the punchlines therein, I didn’t feel excluded not knowing what was being said – and Harleen’s own rudimentary grasp of the language was itself a further source of humour. A lot happens in this briskly-paced production, whose characters are identifiable in many households, whatever their ethnicity. The affirmation in the takeaway messages in this show is palpable – when so many plays portray contemporary society as being in desperate need of further progress and development, Happy Birthday Sunita serves as a powerful reminder that things may not be what they should be, but they aren’t what they were. Perceptive and positive, it’s a messy and engaging portrait of family life.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

The Johals are celebrating Sunita’s birthday in Mum’s new kitchen, and you’re invited to the surprise party. It’s not just the dhal that’s bubbling under the surface – with decades of unfinished business, everyone’s true selves start to burst out when they least expect it. And it’s up to the family to pick each other back up and celebrate themselves for who they truly are.

Unexpected guests, butter-free roti and skeletons in the cupboard aren’t enough to stop them from busting out some classic Punjabi shapes in the kitchen! Join the Johal family for a wild ride that will leave you laughing, crying, and talking all the way home.
Written by Hollyoaks star Harvey Virdi and directed by Pravesh Kumar MBE, founder and artistic director of Rifco Theatre Company, (Britain’s Got Bhangra, The Deranged Marriage).

The cast is made up of acclaimed Indian film and TV star Divya Seth Shah (Jab We Met, English Vinglish), Bhawna Bhawsar (The Undeclared War, Eastenders), Devesh Kishore (Last Night, Casualty), Rameet Rauli (Little English, Find Me In Paris) and Keiron Crook (Violet, Coronation Street).

23 – 27 May 2023

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