REVIEW: Boom Shankar (Matchbox 2023)

Review by Ben Shand-Clennell

Photography by Amanda Billing

Boom Shankar is a delightfully silly and immensely creative piece, which explores and subverts ideas around love and death.

The play follows Shankar Shinde, an overconfident and arrogant bomb defusal expert, and Murray Murray, an overworked but conscientious bureaucrat in heaven. Writers and performers, Bala Murali Shingade and Aman Bajaj, must be commended for creating and embodying such complex and entertaining characters. It is impressive how each performer can so organically be absurd, while the other is composed, and composed, while the other is absurd. The writing is very snappy, and there are many clever barbs which play on the wider Aotearoa experience, as well as those of the South Asian diaspora. It is clear that the performers know the characters and world very well, as the improvisation and audience interaction is very cohesive. This is important, as the play relies heavily on interaction with the audience.

The story itself is compelling and comfortably familiar. In the best possible way, the entire play feels like a 90s family movie, both stylistically and thematically. The main character is not kind to those close to him, and through his own hubris, is lumped together with his foil. The two do not get along, but must work together. After a long journey, the two have learnt to be more like each other, and are ready to redeem themselves for love. They are each given a second chance. This is interspersed with song and dance numbers. 

This adhesion to the tropes of 90s family movies, far from detracting, creates a recognisable framework to work within and subvert. The subject matter of death is one way in which this play subverts the usual 90s family movie tropes. The treatment of death in this play is fascinating. You are awarded points, in the afterlife, based on the sum of your deeds while you lived. You also get a smash cut of your life. For Shankar, this is not a happy summation, and he is left with regrets. 

This production of Boom Shankar has been extended and reworked from previous showings at the Basement Theatre. This reviewer is in the fortuitous position of having seen a previous iteration of the show. Ahi Karunaharan, as dramaturg and director of this production, has leant his considerable skill and expertise to help create a very tight and well-honed piece. The dances carry over well from previous incarnations of the play, but have better dramatic reasoning for being there – as a ruse for Shankar to utilise, and as an act of solidarity. Likewise, the inclusion of Chloe Bettina’s characters is a great deviation from previous showings. These characters provide an entertaining way to incorporate the many costume changes, and also provide some humorous motifs for scene changes. The play’s audience interaction also gets a rework, as this has a more-fleshed-out reason for occurring. The self-reference and audience interaction are not breaking the fourth wall, as the audience are also players, who have each taken up a role within the play. 

Set, costumes and props were few in number, but used to great effect. It is refreshing to experience a performative work which asks the audience to play and suspend disbelief to enjoy the high calibre of story being told. To this end, props and costumes intimate and approximate the characters and objects being rendered. A scarf denotes Shankar’s mother, or a set of horns denotes the devil. Similarly, the set is largely mimed, or a large ‘black box’ is used. Lighting is also used in very inventive ways to hint settings, a standout being the narrow beam which acts as a drawbridge. Bettina, as Stage Manager, did a fantastic job of actively coordinating the large number of costume and set changes. There may not have been a great number of tangible costumes, props or set pieces, but they were used at a high volume. Bettina ensured that these transitions went smoothly, and often humorously. The lighting was complex and involved. Isabelle Hoskyn, who designed the lighting and acted as operator, should be commended on both the creative application and the marvellous execution of such an elaborate show. The evoking of angels with the follow spots was very clever.

Boom Shankar is a creative and entertaining piece, which is both wildly inventive and pleasantly familiar. It is a very slick story, which is well executed by the talented creative team. The play deals with the tough subject matter of love and death in compelling ways, and leaves the audience with questions of how they would be scored in the afterlife, or whether they would be happy seeing their ‘highlights reel’. 

Boom Shankar plays at the Loft, Q Theatre, from 6th to 16th September as part of the Matchbox 2023 Season.

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