Play: An Adventure
Playwright: Vinay Patel
Director: Madani Younis
Theatre: Bush Theatre
Review by Joy Francis
Vinay Patel is a talented writer. His award-winning TV drama Murdered by My Father was chilling. His debut play True Brits foreshadowed his artistic ascent. Meanwhile, my anticipation for his epic play An Adventure was bordering on the obscene.
Which is why I’m frustrated by my ambivalence. Clocking up an endurance-testing three hours and 15 minutes, with two intervals, the play is a love story about a thwarted adventure, hampered by racism, politics and human frailties, straddling three countries over 64 years.
Opening in India in 1954, the play bolts out of the gate and commands your attention. Jyoti (the effortlessly talented Anjana Vasan) is ruthlessly interrogating one of five potential suitors for her arranged marriage. Fluttering their shiny Polaroids in her tiny 16-year-old hands like a fan, she insults, disarms and outwits the 22-year-old rank outsider Rasik (a charming Shubham Saraf).
Drowning in his oversized borrowed suit, he tries to soften Jyoti’s barbs with compliments, and win her over with his earnest charm while promising to take her on the “greatest adventure”. He’s drawn to her fearless spirit. She likes that he was born in Kenya (“That’s so cool.”) and seems willing to take risks, despite coming up light financially.
They bond in the Indian Ocean where she holds him steady as he can’t swim. Rasik is adrift in more ways than one after losing his parents and siblings to typhoid. He leaves Jyoti for 18 months, armed with her money, to build a life for them in Nairobi, his homeland . To survive, he minimises the racial divisions, colonial rule and Mau Mau rebels tarnishing the landscape. When Jyoti arrives, her civil servant husband owns a farm with Kikuyu farmer and rebel sympathiser David (a commanding Martins Imhangbe).
The unlikely friends’ relationship is challenged by the political climate. The fact that David cannot buy a farm but Rasik can, due to the racial hierarchy, is never far from the surface. When Jyoti joins them, David wants his country back. Rasik misguidedly believes change is on the horizon. Jyoti’s latent activism is stirred by David but her desire to protect her family finds a home in her husband’s pragmatism. After giving birth to a baby girl Sonal, their bonds are tested, forcing Rasik and Jyoti to flee to England.
The rest of the play straddles the London years from 1968 to 1977 with its bleak weather, regular strikes, ‘go home’ chants and Jyoti’s union activism. As it ends in 2018, the older Jyoti (Nila Aalia) and Rasik (Selva Rasalingam) try to sidestep their unfulfilled dreams. As Jyoti clings on to the past, with a spontaneous trip to Kenya, a fortuitous but devastating encounter with David forces her to face the truth.
An Adventure has so much to say – almost too much. The simple, stark yet dramatic staging, aided by filmic lighting, multimedia images and confident direction by Madani Younis, are visually evocative.
The large, square and burnished stage is set in the round. Fake soil is raked by David as he explains Kenya’s turbulent history. Though informative, this history comes at the expense of gripping tension and emotional resonance.
By 2018, hearing David recount his traumatic experience of being tortured leaves me less moved than I ought to be. And discovering that Jyoti was only 14 when she married Rasik (when he was actually 23) is handled too lightly and left unexplored. Overall, the emotional backstory, all hinted at, is not mined as deeply as it deserves, despite a strong and solid cast.
But nothing can deflate the beguiling relationship between Jyoti and Rasik, fuelled by Vinay Patel’s ability to create clever and empathetic humour from the most mundane everyday activity. This makes the family scenes in London, such as seeing Sonal (Aysha Kala) grow up from resenting looking after her baby sister to demanding her independence by going to university in Newcastle, heart-warming.
Jyoti and Rasik’s relationship is the play’s anchor and owes a great deal to Anjana Vasan’s emotional intelligence and Shubham Saraf’s ability to create lightness to mask Rasik’s pain as the younger versions of themselves. You want more for them both. And after the impressive opening, it is hard not to fall in love with them. But by the end, the play loses pace under the weight of the multi-layered, historical-driven narratives.
I expected to fall hard for An Adventure. Instead, I’m left with a partial crush and a feeling of expectations unmet, much like Jyoti and Rasik.
An Adventure is at Bush Theatre until 20 October 2018. You can book tickets here.
Photo credit: Photograph featuring Shubham Saraf (Rasik) and Anjana Vasan (Jyoti) by © Helen Murray