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Guru of Chai: dark side to charming fairytale

By: John McCallum, 19 May 2017

Jacob Rajan, playing the title character in this production, tells us at the beginning that Belvoir’s people have invited him in because their audiences are overweight, work in useless jobs and drink too much, so they need cheering up. This is played with such comic charm that the effect is utterly disarming.

And so the Guru of Chai, a chai seller near a railway station in an Indian city, proceeds to tell us a story based on an old Indian fairytale but reset in modern times. It concerns seven sisters who arrive in the street near his stall one day and start singing. They are popular and take a lot of money until they are threatened by the agent (a man without thumbs because there are criminals involved) of a mysterious mafia-like figure. They are saved by a heroic policeman who vows to protect them.

The story develops from there, with many twists and turns. It has the simplicity, political naivety and moral ambivalence of a folk tale. It also has some sinister undertones, and doesn’t quite end up cheering its fat, useless, drunken audience, a failure the chai seller happily confesses.

Rajan plays all these characters with great virtuosity, with the help of an onstage musician (Adam Ogle) and an effective score and sound design by David Ward. He develops an easy relationship with us. He shifts quickly and lightly between characters, and creates scenes with brief flashes of mime and magic tricks. He has an easy wit and his story, co-written with director Justin Lewis, has moments of romance, emotion and mock philosophy.

The design, by Cathy Knowsley and John Verryt, is simplicity itself. It evokes an Indian metropolis and a small space that is like a temple to Ganesh, the elephant god, who the chai seller likes to think is hovering over them all.

This is very economical theatrical storytelling: a few props and costumes, some shadow puppetry, a sudden stiffening or relaxing of Rajan’s stance when he is switching characters. With these the whole world of the story is completed by our imagination.

The show is beguiling and very funny until, at the end, a touch of darkness creeps in, as in all great fairytales.

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