Intimate Play Fills Theatre With Wit

By Mark Peters (The Gisborne Herald)

A BRIGHT, bold set design in tropical pastels plays against the undercurrent of death, loss and tragedy in Justin Lewis and Jacob Rajan’s multi-layered play The Pickle King, playing here on tour.

At the heart of the play, and the heart is a constant motif, is the tragic but bright orphan Sasha Daniels, who now lives with her aunt, the matriarch of the Empire Hotel on Wellington’s Oriental Parade.

Among the political threads subtly woven throughout the play is the Bhopal industrial disaster of 1984. A chemical explosion killed Sasha’s family and all but blinded her. Raised by gypsies, Sasha’s tragicomic experience of marriage hints at the sense of magic realism the play floats on.

Sasha believes she is cursed, that everything she loves will die. Then she falls for the hotel porter who brings another subtle contemporary political motif to the play — the plight of the over-qualified immigrant.

Basel masks, big white masks a trio of hotel guests wear at the beginning, establish the theme of love lost and longing, while half-masks, and even nose masks, demand of the four actors who play a multitude of characters, a style of acting that is as stylised as John Verryt’s bold stage design.

Cast as Sasha, Kalyani Nagarajan brings a bright, sometimes feisty, spirit to her character. Vanessa Kumar’s hotel porter Jeena is just as warm-hearted but has her own challenges as a stranger in a strange land. As Auntie Ammachy, Kumar creates an entirely different character.

The villain of the piece is the “pickle king” himself, a bon vivant with worldly pretensions, played with camp but sinister gusto by Andrew Ford. He brings with him the whiff of death Sasha is so attuned to.

An incidental character who is on stage throughout the whole show is the hotel piano player Graham (Ayrton Foote).

Theatrical convention asks that he is an “invisible” presence but the play is stylised enough for him to play various roles, from counterpointing the action with incidental music to a call-hold tune and even playing a smattering of piped Richard Clayderman, the pickle king brusquely switches off.

Artifice drives the show. The Pickle King is large, bright and captivating. The Basel masks, scuttling mouse puppets and other surprises would be superfluous if they were not so seamlessly blended with the main story with its wildly original plot twists.

Like the heart, like Verryt’s stage design, this is a play with many compartments.

It is personable, intimate and warm-hearted but managed to fill the big space of the War Memorial Theatre with light, love and a sense of imminent tragedy. Gisborne’s opening night audience was drawn into a world within the hotel and was captivated by its magic.