The Pickle King

By Nathan Joe (Theatrescenes)

It’s a testament to the quality of Indian Ink’s storytelling that The Pickle King, the company’s 15-year old play, has stood the test of time. Those like myself who were unable to see its original production are given the opportunity to see a play that made one of New Zealand’s leading theatre companies who they are today. If their first two works, Krishnan’s Dairy and The Candlestickmaker, were perfect star vehicles for Jacob Rajan as a performer, then The Pickle King was the turning point that proved they could create ensemble-driven works of bigger scale and scope. Though not completely unchanged, the additions that Rajan and director Justin Lewis have made for this revival, appropriately, keep it fresh and relevant. They aren’t intrusive updates, though they are notably contemporary ones that most audiences will enjoy.

While set in present day Wellington, in the faux-exotic Empire hotel, the story unfolds with picture book realism, closer to a Wes Anderson diorama than anything you’d see out in the real world. Like Anderson’s films, The Pickle King hides a deep melancholy underneath the bright colours. On the surface, it’s about a blind hotel receptionist falling in love against all odds. Scratch the surface, though, and you’ll find a tale of lost souls looking for a new home and conquering personal demons. It might sound conventional but the unique presentation of this story is what makes it pop. This is family-friendly theatre that always treats its quirky characters with an emotional seriousness. The cartoonish commedia-style masks that the characters wear don’t make their feelings any less real. If anything, they let us believe that these larger than life characters really exist.

None of this would work without the cast, who are spectacular, bringing a warmth and radiance to the stage. Even the simple ways they hold themselves and move about the space commands attention, resulting in a deceptively physical piece of theatre. As our pitiable protagonist Sasha, Kaylani Nagarajan doesn’t play her blind heroine as a fairytale princess waiting to be rescued, so much as a feisty and fiery woman who has built walls around her heart. In the dual roles of Aunty Ammachy and love interest Jeena, Vanessa Kumar proves herself a worthy successor to the role that Rajan originated, making it her own. Andrew Ford as the scheming and slimey George Reaper rounds out the cast, embodying grandiosity in every gesture, stride and inflection. Through these four main characters (and various extras), you easily forget that there are only three actors on stage. It’d also be unforgivable to omit mention of on-stage pianist Ayrton Foote who adds a snazzy jazz club vibe to accompany the lonely inhabitants of the hotel.

The gender-swap of Jojo (in the original production) to Jeena is notable as the biggest change to the text, turning a heterosexual romance into a homosexual one. Yet, it’s also a mistake to draw too much attention to it. This change, at its most effective, simply lets their relationship exist without judgement. A simple statement of love being love. If the romance poses any issues, it’s because it almost escalates from co-workers to full-blown love too quickly. There’s never any real sense of watching them fall in love. They simply do.

If the play has aged at all, it might be in its pacing and length which, in the current environment of shorter and more succinct theatre, can come across as slow. The first half of the play comes off as leisurely, with its seemingly unconnected storylines and backstories. The second half flies by in comparison, upping the stakes and tying everything up in a perfect bow.

What elevates The Pickle King (and Indian Ink as a company) from popcorn entertainment is how big universal themes of love, guilt and redemption are tackled, not to mention the more topical themes of of immigration and globalisation. Every valuable lesson the play has to offer is never asserted aggressively, rather they’re hidden underneath the warm laughs the play often inspires. A worthy revival of a formative work.