Writer: Hardeep Singh Kohli
Director: Jatinder Verma
Reviewer: Maggie Constable
Hardeep Singh Kohli is famous for his cookery, his writings and his humour, among many other aspects of his acclaimed career. He is also known on the Beeb for his own special brand of journalism, so it was with high expectations that I went to see his most recent work-a foray into Pantoland!! I was not disappointed.This is not his first attempt at writing. His ‘In Search of the Tartan Turban’ won BAFTa awards and he has performed to sell-out audiences in shows such as Chat Masala and the Nearly Naked Chef..Tara Arts Theatre in Earslfield, tucked away in a corner of South West London, is known for its community productions, its global theatre and vibrant, interesting work. The theatre itself, a cosy venue holding no more than 70 people, was thus packed when I arrived. Sat on a cushion on the floor right at the front, so close I could touch the actors’ feet(!) I was in the perfect place to feel very much a part of this community in the round. The set was simple but really glittery and radiant in those beautiful Indian colourful silks, a small trio of keyboard player, drummer and singer, all in Indian costume, sat ready just off-stage. The scene was set and the ambiance just so…….
One does not need to restate the tale of Cinderella, her two mean ugly si(ni)sters(!), in this case rolled into one with two names, and one Prince Raj, tres charmant!Nor the sweet glass slipper-not exactly- ending, but this panto has the wow factor and the Bollywood twist with extra spice, colour and music enough for all the senses, very reminiscent of my trip to India!!The story is set in Dil where Sunder is the ward of the evil Queen Shanti, who must ensure that Sunder does NOT marry if her daughter, the not so lovely Happy-Lucky, is to stand a chance. Sunder is forced to work like a slave 24\7, making special slippers called chappals for her ’Auntiji’(Shanti) and for her stepsister Lucky-Happy.
The poor love is isolated and sad with only her little singing veggies, aubergine(Brinjal), Bhindi(Lady’s Finger) and Pumpkin to keep her company!!!But soon her life will take a dramatic turn when a close-by Prince Raj, who is very keen to find his one true love to marry, announces a ball in order to seek out the wearer of the chappal!!(Indian glass slipper to you!!) But the wicked duo in her home are hell-bent on ensuring Sunder never sees the light of day or the ball, called a naj. How will it all pani-puree out and will Sunder’s fate change or the handsome Prince find his little princess???!!That’s for you to find out and it is well worth the journey, a veritable hoot a minute and great songs and dances to boot.
The star of the panto for me was Maya Sondhi in the rôle of Prince Raj’s manservant, and also a pumpkin, who acts as narrator. Real charisma and humour and great banter with the audience, many of whom loved to interject as well as boo and coo!!
Sunder, played by Krupa Pattani, did the vulnerable and so cute, down-trodden lil princess to a tee with excellent gestures, wonderful dancing and super self-deprecation. She made the most of her lines. Happy-Lucky, performed by Ali Zaidi, made a great foil to Shanti and was tres drôle. Auntiji or Queen Shanti, a rôle portrayed so superbly by Simon Norbury, did all that a great pantomime should do and even sat on two audience members’ laps!!Excellent comic timing and what a body when shimmying! Our Prince Charming, a.k.a. Raj, was done in style by Nitin Ranpuria. Very athletic and aesthetically pleasing and he was spot on with his acting, even if at times a little unsure of the dance moves. The Fairy Godmother (also the pretty purple knitted aubergine!) was brought to us by Sian Van Cuylenburg. She was brilliant as the Essex girl with extra estuary accent and the lines to match, and what a mover!
The choreography from Shreya Kumar, was absolutely right and at times a fantastic pastiche of the ole Bollywood moves, as we were oft reminded. Lots of mimicry of Indian accents and phraseology/special words, which only this group could get away with!. Much appreciated by the largely Indian spectators. The script, very Hardeep Singh Kohli, is very sharp with lots of topical and even political references and none of the toilet jokes that one can often find in trad pantos, thankfully. It was plenty funny without any of that.
The costumes were apt and, lest I forget, the key person in all of this was the singer, one Sohini Alam, who sang for every single character as they mimed the words. What a powerful voice and what great use of styles, tone and register. It somehow worked and made their ‘singing’ and the words even more amusing. There was plenty of ‘it’s behind you’, booing/cooing and other interaction and clapping along. You couldn’t help but get involved. Kids were shouting out to Sunder when she tried to drink the poison, but I won’t spoil the plot!
The music and lighting were simple but perfectly effective in such a small space. All in all a thoroughly family evening with lots of fun and style and a brilliant (in all senses of the word) twist on our traditional Xmas panto. Low budget but I know I appreciated it much more than some pantos I will see this season which have stars a-plenty in them and are costly. A real testament to the writer, the Director, Jatinder Verma, and the cast and musicians. Not to be missed!