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Review of Happy Birthday Sunita (on tour) - Funny and chaotic play about a funny and chaotic family

Rated 🍯 🍯 🍯

Poster for the play Happy Birthday Sunita, shows the family with a birthday cake taking a selfie
Happy Birthday Sunita is on tour through July 2023

It's Sunita's birthday and it doesn't look like a happy one

The Johals (mom, son, daughter-in-law, and mysterious surprise guest later) gather in the mom's newly refurbished kitchen to celebrate Sunita's 40th.

Sunita, the birthday girl, first presented as one with a rather flat personality and limited agency, or at least that’s how the remaining characters made her appear for the first one-third of the play, where everyone restlessly waits for the birthday girl to show up so that the festivities can get underway. It is clear Sunita does not want this party. When she finally comes in, she seemed rather uninterested (and perhaps rightfully so) at celebrating with a “family” that, just minutes ago, had revealed how little they think of her life and her accomplishments.

The audience begins to ponder what went wrong with Sunita's life (childhood trauma? father issues?) and the play keeps the audience guessing for a while (nicely done!) as it pivots to explore the other characters.

Sunita's brother Nav and his wife Harleen, the only other guests at the dinner party (up until then, at least), provide comic relief to balance out mother Tej’s rather reserved manner. Tej, for her part, appeared inexplicably annoyed at someone or something throughout the play. Perhaps it was standard mother-in-law-ennui towards daughter-in-law, especially with the latter putting on airs, what with her fashion advice to Tej and her god-awful Punjabi lines uttered without the remotest bashfulness. Perhaps it was bitterness over her husband’s abandonment of her family. Perhaps it was plain irritability at having to cook - the bee just couldn’t tell, because the show appeared to have no clear plot.

One minute it was a comedy with jokes and references relating to Punjabi culture, the next it was a drama about a woman who missed out on her dreams because of her mother (who in turn blamed "the times"), then it was a soap opera about a father who left and a mother who found a new lover. For good measure, Nav and Harleen argue about having kids. Predictably, Sunita and Nav (and Harleen too, god only knows why), flip out at the idea of Tej having a romantic life. At all. With anyone. Then Sunita breaks down over her father having left them in her childhood. What a scatterbrain of stories, each one with the potential to be deeply moving, but because the play flipped so fast from one theme to the next, the audience never got the chance to absorb and reflect on any of these themes. Not during the performance, at least.

To be fair, families are messy, and this show never claimed to be an incisive piece of commentary on family life. But there are plays about messy families, and then there are messy plays about families.

A melange of thoughts and ideas on cultural identity, family power dynamics, personal growth, regret, hope, hopelessness, abandonment, compromise — Happy Birthday Sunita was quite a handful. While it is commendable that the actors could exhibit such a wide range of emotion, at the same time, their exposition felt rather superficial. Conflicts were not properly explored but brushed aside (or made fun of).

There were also generous helpings of tidbits of Punjabi phrases, references to Punjabi pop culture and puns around Punjabi lifestyle, which were firstly incomprehensible to the non-Punjabi speaking members of the audience (the bee included), and secondly, seemed to have no other purpose than to remind people of the existence of Punjab and all things Punjabi, much like how performers at a concert pander to the audience by simply calling out the name of the city as though people need to be reminded that their city exists and they’re in it.

All in all, it wasn't a bad evening, but the bee did not fall off its chair laughing at any point (although many of the Punjabi-speaking audience did).

Three stars.

Watched May 2023 at the Watford Palace Theatre, Watford

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