By Joana Simmons
Every once in a while, a piece of live theatre combines the exact amount of all the right ingredients to make the perfect potion. New Zealand Company Indian Ink’s production Guru of Chai is as warm, sweet and spicy as chai itself. This beautiful romantic thriller is told by bucktoothed chameleon, Jacob Rajan, who energetically plays seventeen different characters that jump in and out of the epic tale. Accompanied by musician Adam Ogle, this is one wonderful story to get swept up in.
The almost-full house on opening night is eating out of the palm of Rajan’s hand about three minutes in. He wins us over with charisma and comedy, telling us that all our problems (being stressed, being overweight, painful urination) will be gone by the end of the night. He transports us to bustling Bangalore railway station, painting an animated and, for anyone who has been to India, hilariously accurate picture. There at his chai stand, his life is changed with a young girl’s song, and the story develops from there. All elements of drama, pace, comedy, love, suspense and action flow and follow, skillfully enacted by Rajan. We are on board the whole way, with full belly-laughs and absolute breathless, edge-of-seat silence in some parts of this tale. It is magic.
It astounds me how Rajan played so many characters effortlessly to carry the story, and each character had its own personality and authenticity. You can see why this production has won two Edinburgh Fringe First awards, three Production of the Year awards, as well as achieving Best Play, Best Composer and Best Actor at the Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards. Written by Rajan and Justin Lewis, the story is succinct and gives us little lessons along the way to hang onto. For myself and my date for the evening, who have both spent some time in India, we were nodding our heads and laughing at how the little details were so true, and was wonderful to be transported back to the intense sensory experience that is India. The music and sound design by David Ward which was played onstage by Adam Ogle, weaves in the Eastern tones and sound effects to add dimension and drama. I loved when both performers sang together with so much commitment and heart.
John Verryt’s set and costume-design concept was both simple and beautiful, reminiscent of an Indian skyline and interior of a home or shop. This combined with Cathy Knowsley’s lighting design which cleverly uses torches and shadow very well.
I was lucky to catch this show on a Tuesday night in the middle of a very busy week. I was also developing a chest infection, which hardly had me in the mood for doing anything other than drinking tea; but this show fully put the spring back in my step and gave me a cup of tea as well. If you love escaping the every-day, this show is the one to do it. It’s heart-warming, it’s epic, and it even has a few words of wisdom. It was brilliant: I’m still smiling. Whilst it may not have left us no longer stressed, overweight, and suffering painful urination, it certainly proves that laughter is the best medicine.
Guru of Chai was performed 22-27 August, 2017 at Arts Centre Melbourne.