Pyar Actually, Theatre Royal Stratford East

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by Laura Kressly

Polly lives in Gravesend, has a good job at the council, a husband and two children. Life is…fine. No, really – she insists all is well. Other than a few meddling Aunties and standard marital discontent, it’s fine. Then Bali, her school boyfriend, calls her after 20 years. He’s in town, and would she like to meet for a coffee?

Oooohh, would she! After all that time, she has a lot to say about the way he treated her. But he has a lot on his conscience he wants her to hear. In true romcom style but avoiding anti-feminist tropes, writer Sukh Ojla takes this pair on a bittersweet journey through grief, self-discovery and eventual freedom. It’s heartwarming and empowering, with a confident use of Punjabi and British-Indian references.

Similar to Nine Night but Indian rather than Jamaican, much of the comedy comes from well-embedded diaspora references. There’s a great, distinctive blend of British and Punjab cultures. The predominantly Asian audience loves it, and clearly sees themselves represented on stage – it’s wonderful. Polly and Bali’s story, though universally Western, contains several distinct plot points that depend on its British-Asian context; this specificity is seamlessly included and makes the story much more interesting.

Ojla plays Polly, and its clear that her background in stand-up comedy informs her performance. Her delivery is snappy and funny, but she also displays a moving vulnerability. The only issue is that her transition from jilted ex into a close friend is too sudden to be fully believable. Simon Rivers embodies his character Bali’s conflict well, though he is often irritatingly male – there are many funny moments that come from this though, and Ojla certainly doesn’t tolerate any of his shit.

This Rifco production plays an excellent role in increasing representation on stage, and it’s well-written and performed to boot. It’s charming, funny and empowering to women who may feel constrained by a culture that encourages to do the right thing rather than what makes them free.

Pyar Actually runs through 19 May.

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