Achieves A Delicate And Satisfying Balance Of Flavours

By Erin Harrington (Theatreview)

Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis’s much-celebrated, endearing love story The Pickle King first debuted fifteen years ago, and in that time it’s become a classic of contemporary New Zealand theatre.

The Pickle King feels like a modern day fairy tale, but like any good fable it is stitched through with serious, even tragic threads of frustration. Here, we have the lifelong impact of childhood and family trauma, the social and cultural difficulties facing immigrants, the pressure of family and cultural expectations, and the impacts of colonialism and inequality.

Set in the faded Empire Hotel – marketed as a taste of the Orient on Wellington’s Oriental Parade – it offers the story of a nearly blind hotel receptionist, Sasha, who is convinced she is cursed and will only bring death to those she loves. Her formidable aunt, Ammachy, the hotel’s proprietor, wants Sasha to marry but has been thwarted at every turn.

Sanguine night porter and recent immigrant Jeena is a third generation cardiothoracic surgeon. She is living, secretly and with remarkable positivity, in the cleaners’ broom cupboard as she prepares to sit the exam that will allow her to practice in New Zealand.

The gentle rhythm of the hotel is disrupted by the arrival of dodgy, pickle-pushing grifter George Reaper – a restless traveller, chronic insomniac, and child of the British Raj with a nasty secret. He stinks of death and becomes obsessed with Sasha.

Kalyani Nagarajan exhibits impressive range and control in her portrayal of the complex, feisty and emotionally vulnerable receptionist Sasha. Vanessa Kumar brings a gentle, genial touch to night porter Jeena, but I am utterly in love with her deft and nuanced portrayal of Ammachy. This is a gorgeous piece of character work that combines broad humour with exquisite gestural detail. Andrew Ford plays Reaper with effusive, moustache twirling, malevolent glee; early on, when he still has the feel of a stock villain, I keep waiting for him to try to tie a heroine to some railway tracks.

The three actors are supported by foyer pianist Graham (Ayrton Foote), whose schmoozy, light jazz accompaniment tempers some of the deeper drama. I also appreciate the running gag about his ongoing and necessary presence but relative invisibility – a gentle metaphor, perhaps, for the cultural position of the immigrant. This is particularly fitting in a week where immigration is, again, a topic of heated, even panicked discussion within political circles in the lead up to the next election.

As with other Indian Ink productions, there is a meaningful engagement with, and deep respect for, mask work, be they the small or half-face character masks of the central figures, or the beautiful, oversized Basal masks that represent the silent hotel guests and the hotel’s chef. This latter character offers a small but significant B plot, and is a quiet highlight of the performance.

The sense of wonder engendered by the masks is enriched through the costumes, the clever, economical set and the sometimes unexpectedly lively properties, all of which dance between a sense of realism and a twee, storybook ‘Oriental’ aesthetic. The theatrical trickery and sympathetic lighting is well suited to the space, but I am unconvinced that the main stage of the Isaac Theatre Royal is the most appropriate venue for the show. I am seated right near the front but still struggle with some of the sight lines, and I am left wondering how well those nearer the back were able to see.

This touring revival production, which celebrates twenty years of Indian Ink as a company, updates a little of the language and references, but it’s significant that its key social themes – most notably, the plight and poor working conditions of highly qualified immigrants, and the legacy of colonial trauma – remain salient.

The biggest alteration is its central love story, which is now a same-sex relationship; recent Indian immigrant Jojo the night porter becomes Jeena. I’m not sure I wholeheartedly buy the love story, as early interactions between the Jeena and Sasha don’t entirely lay the emotional groundwork for the later revelation of their secret but mutual affection, even if they come to have a warm and generous chemistry. This is a small quibble in what is otherwise an endearing production that, like Reaper’s famed aubergine pickle, achieves a delicate and satisfying balance of flavours.