Never act with children or animals the late, great WC Field was fond of quoting, but he missed the last show stealer from the list. As shown in Why Not Theatre’s A Brimful Of Asha, it’s the matriarch you have to look out for. For all the hard work performer Ravi Jain puts in; setting the show up, carrying the narrative and then driving it on towards its end game; it’s his Mum Asha, a lifelong housewife with no previous performance experience, who walks away with the show.
With her sly intelligence and high wattage mischievous smile she allows the (mostly Western European) audience an illuminating access to her viewpoint. Her son Ravi has just come back to Toronto having studied theatre in Paris for several years. She wants him to work in finance. He wants to set up a theatre company. She wants her son married. He wants to get noticed on the Toronto theatre scene. She wants to ensure he remains close to his Indian heritage by marrying into a family that still resides there. He just wants to fall in love. So we’re set on a conflict between generations, cultures and heritages. When he goes off to Calcutta to host a theatre workshop he soon finds himself in a trap laid out by his parents to procure him a wife. It constantly feels like an elaborate game of human chess. Ravi only a step away from being placed in check mate. The end game hangs in the balance. Asha doesn’t fully understand what Ravi does making theatre. So he turns their collective experience into a piece of theatre and gets her to perform in it. Could there be a more elaborate fight back. A final charge into the fray which has created a rollicking ride of a show, a thoroughly entertaining ninety minutes of theatre. The Jain’s welcome us as family with the offer of Samosa’s and handshakes when we enter the space, it is to the shows credit that by the end we feel a member of this crazy loving clan.
There’s a fascinating thesis to be written about the use of non-performers in modern theatre from Bryony Kimming’s using her partner and niece in her latest auto-biographical shows to Dead Centre’s audience plant in First Chekhov that completely changed the rules of that production. You feel the success of this ploy is down to the feeling of risk it engenders. However well-drilled the show (and this one has played for five years now) there is always the sense that anything can happen when a non-performer is chucked in the deep end, not trained to deal with the unexpected. They identify that risk here; at the start Asha in heavily accented English explains that she may go blank when she tells her tales. It draws the audience onside, even though it’s a clear set up. Just one of the many lovely moments contained within this little gem is just how protected she is by her son. At one point she snaps ‘You don’t know what it means to be happy’, and he replies ‘I’m learning from doing this show.’ You can’t help but be charmed.