REVIEW: Basmati Bitch (Q Theatre)

Review by Erin O'Flaherty

Photography by Abhi Chinniah

[Dreaming of Electric Sheep]

We start with a bang. There is no slow dimming of the lights, no hushed waiting in the dark. Straightaway we are launched into catastrophic news reports, chronicling the next 100 years. China and India rise to global dominance amid political turmoil and ongoing climate crisis, creating an authoritarian (though not so unfamiliar) vision of Aotearoa with closed borders, a new class of the undocumented, illegal rice trades, and people trafficking.

Tāmaki Makaurau, 2123. Amid the rain-filled, neon-lit streets, we meet Shiva (Gemma-Jayde Naidoo) – an undocumented migrant struggling to make ends meet; a tough cookie and an excellent fighter. She is our badass narrator, our access point into this new world. She needs to get her papers sorted, which is why she turns to Bisma (Karishma Grebneff), a meek office worker who secretly writes erotic fiction (now illegal). Through Bisma, Shiva is drawn into the dark world of the underground rice trade – gangs, turf wars, a fighting racket; the whole nine yards.

Basmati Bitch, written by Ankita Singh and directed by Ahi Karunaharan, is a visually spectacular, fast-paced firecracker of a show. Think Blade Runner meets Scott Pilgrim. Q’s Rangatira is transformed, finally living up to its black-box potential. The audience is placed in traverse (either side of the stage). Large metal stairs sit on both short sides, leading up to where the gods seating usually is. Here there are translucent sliding doors, from which characters can enter and exit, providing the backdrop onto which Ant Sang’s wonderful designs are projected.

It is a visual and auditory feast, taking stylistic cues from anime, comic books and video games. Te Aihe Butler creates a fun and slick language of sound effects, layering on top of the visual splendour and perfectly-paced action. The performers are all physically adept, creating exciting fight scenes and leaning hard into their larger-than-life characters. Karunaharan’s staging is dynamic, making full use of the inventive set (designed by Rachel Marlow and Bradley Gledhill) and elevating Singh’s tight and funny script to the realm of cinematic banger.

The story is simple but solid, as is typical of any good action piece. It does not demand much intellectual engagement from the audience, but rather provides the foundation for this intoxicating spectacle. It is universal but unique, drawing on cultural touchstones such as the importance of rice and the nagging aunties (played comically by Amanda Grace Hsu Hsien Leo and Celine Dam). The world-building is impeccable, down to the timeline of events included in the program.

Most of all, this show is fun. It is a quirky, romping comedy wrapped up in the package of a pop-y neo-noir action. A forbidden queer romance played with winking sincerity by Mo Nasir and Rob Gibson, the alpha-male asthmatic mob-boss (Mel Odedra), and erotic fiction saving the day. At its heart is the relationship between Shiva and Bisma, but the whole crew of loveable characters has been cleverly woven together and performed with clear enjoyment by the ensemble cast.

It is rare that we get to see locally-produced work of this ambition and aesthetic flare on our stages. Basmati Bitch joins Red Leap’s Dakota of the White Flats and ATC’s Scenes From A Yellow Peril in setting a new precedent for what theatre can look like (but now add in fight choreography). Singh has filled the need for work that represents the pan-Asian community without being limited to topics of trauma or racism. Basmati Bitch touches on colonialism, migration, and the influence of capitalism while at its core being a fun and heartfelt action-comedy. It is a genre piece, done to perfection. I laughed and I yelled, and my heart soared. Blazingly modern and joyously thrilling, you will be sorry to miss it.

Basmati Bitch plays Q Theatre 11th – 30th of July 2023

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