REVIEW: First World Problems 3.0 (Basement Theatre)

Review by Jess Macdonald

[Healing Together, Beyond Our Problems]

As I arrive into the Basement foyer and navigate past the throng of bodies to collect my tickets, I feel instantly uplifted. Surrounded by so many members the South Asian community, we are lucky to be able to gather and witness the premiere of new homegrown writing.

Yet I can’t help but feel a pang of homesickness for my Indian family back home in the UK – still isolated from one another due to Covid-19 restrictions – and think of the New Zealand citizens in India, barred from returning home. I wonder how many people around me feel the same sense of sadness, to think of those unlucky friends and relatives. 

Reading the director’s note from Sananda Chatterjee, her intention is abundantly clear: to bring people together in the wake of division, to ‘deal with the trauma of this pandemic’ and start to heal.

The main stage theatre is packed, and approximately a dozen performers dressed in colourful street clothes perch on plastic chairs. They form tableaus in front of ethereal, white drapes which absorb different lighting states. At times, the bleached white cloths are reminiscent of a hospital setting – complementing many of the narratives about loss, and grief – which is a testament to the work of set designer Natasha Iyer. 

‘Don’t Go Under The Bridge’ is a chilling devised scene, led by Gemishka Chetty alongside performers Andrea Gerstenmaier, Devika Mhetar, Reshma Madhi and Narme Deva. The short, sharp commentary evidences anxieties to do with female safety through the unusual form of a playground game, viewed through the lens of South Asian culture. 

‘Pearly Shells’ by Mereana Latimer is a stand-out two hander between Vani (Ayesha Heble) – who is losing her memory due to Parkinson’s – and her daughter, Pearl (Sudeepta Vyas). We witness Pearl’s frustrations, flared by her mother’s favouritism towards her two absentee sons. The relatable, tender script allows for impactful performances from Heble and Vyas – with some members of the audience moved to tears within the first five minutes. 

A later devised vignette, ‘My Name Is SRK’ features a group of men (Aakar Vyas, Gaurav Juneja, Ruzbeh Palsetia, Pawa Rao, Anil Kumar Balguhar, and Utsav K. Patel) who meet with a facilitator (Daniel Fernandez) and admit, in the style of an AA-meeting, that they are not perfect – they are flawed, and don’t live up to male stereotypes. The result is a rousing, side-splitting farce which creates a cathartic release from the tension of the previous scenes. A particular highlight of the performance includes one performer reciting his whakapapa in Te Reo, wonderfully demonstrating his sense of belonging. 

Another highlight, written by Tim Booth and Aman Bajaj of upcoming theatrical comedy Boom Shankar, is ‘The Interview.’ Highly comedic, Agustya Chandra performs the central role of Manpreet – a Sly Stallone fan who believes he is interviewing for a coveted role at KPMG but ends up hired to take part in a much more taboo customer-relations role. 

Two other original scripts sit alongside the snappier devised moments – ‘Mirror’ by Nirvana Haldar features Narme Deva and Sangeeta Hariharan as women connected by their traditions, and choreography highlights both performers and their ability to create a cohesive, stylised work. The final performance, ’12 Years Too Late’ by Mayen Mehta, depicts the lengths two brothers will go to after years of family division (Jehangir Homavazir and Utsav K. Patel), and is a dark but believable story of financial woes.  

The overall picture is one of connection, as the ensemble comes together and move as one, and the stories within First World Problems 3.0 manage to be both cohesive and unique.

Supported by the Basement Theatre, First World Problems will most likely return next year with a new crop of writing and talent for Prayas Theatre. I, for one, cannot wait. 

First World Problems 3.0 offers up a poignant, beautiful celebration of our culture in multi-faceted glory. A well-timed, wonderful journey.

First World Problems 3.0 plays Basement Theatre 13-24 April, 2021. 

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