Park Theatre, London – until 17 February
The main protagonists of There or Here, Robyn and Ajay (realistically played by Lucy Fenton and Chris Nayak) are spoilt, demanding American consumers. The actors convincingly portray self-absorbed characters who believe they have an almost divine right to have what they want; they are superb. They make me judge Robyn and Ajay as severely wanting.
In the early noughties, when Robyn phones the tech support call centre, she imposes her personal wishes onto the tech support worker. It is, of course, an unequal relationship as Robyn, an American customer, repeatedly phones Angelina, the Indian tech support call centre worker, whenever she wants.
Robyn unflinchingly talks about personal matters to the tech support worker, who as an employee providing a service to Robyn, is forced to listen. They do not really converse, as Robyn asks for little input from Angelina, brilliantly played by Rakhee Thkrar. It is a monologue with Robyn incessantly talking at Angelina.
Over a year or so, Robyn offloads her personal problems onto Angelina, who offers some advice, and is sometimes amused by Robyn’s self-deprecating wisecracks. This provides Robyn with some relief, but no one knows what Angelina gets out of it because the play isn’t about her. Robyn is not interested enough in Angelina to really know who Angelina is.
Although Robyn’s life-threatening illness demands a great deal of sympathy, her sense of entitlement and self-absorption takes the edge off somewhat and I do not feel guilty about disliking the character.
Nayak is very credible as Ajay an equally self-absorbed American, born in India from Indian descent, but raised in America. He is estranged from the culture of his parents and birthplace. Ajay calls a telephone sex line for the reassurance and comfort, he feels he cannot seek from his wife, Robyn. Of course he never asks about the life, feelings or desires of the phone sex worker. There are though some very humourous moments during Ajay’s calls. Ajay’s selfishness is also demonstrated at a drive-thru fast food restaurant, where he rants about what he wants and how he feels, expressing nostalgia for his childhood. Ajay never asks the server, sharply observed and played by Thkar, about how she is feeling or what she desires. He is all about me, me, me. This, in addition to Robyn repeatedly calling Angelina at Tech Support, are excellent devices for the audience to learn about Robyn’s and Ajay’s emotions and responses to events, as well as for moving the story along.
The taxi driver, Rajit, authentically played by Manish Gandhi, is like the conscience of the two main characters. He criticises the exploitative relationship between rich Westerners and poorer countries. He is explicit about the transaction being about money and not the altruistic act which Robyn and Ajay want and need to believe it is. Rajit puts into sharp contrast, the differences between these rich over privileged Americans and these poor underprivileged Indians.
Rakhee Thakrar, is authentic in each of the 3 roles she plays, changing her accent, body language and mannerisms to make me believe that they are different people. Similarly Ursula Mohan is fantastic as Dr Vittal, the seemingly wise and kind doctor in India, and as Ellen, the adventurous, seen it all mother of Robyn who deeply loves her daughter and is naturally concerned about the decisions Robyn and Ajay make about Robyn’s treatment and their future. Manish Gandhi persuades us so well that he is Rajit the cynical taxi driver in India and Raj the toyboy in America.
When Rajit takes Ajay on an intentionally shocking tour of the back streets and slums of an unknown city in India, Ajay has an epiphany. He rescues/takes a baby girl who has been abandoned and brings her back home to America with him. Robyn declares her heart is still breaking for the loss of her baby but falls in love with the replacement baby girl whom Ajay has taken/rescued. Is this another example of the shallowness of the main characters? The couple believe they are doing the right thing, a caring and compassionate thing, which it is on one level. But is this not also about the couple fulfilling their own desires? Initially the couple went to the lengths of paying for a surrogate and visiting her in India to have their own biological baby. I accept the couple’s desire to have a baby was also about: filling a void, an attempt to provide a future and Ajay’s avoidance of Robyn’s critical illness. But isn’t it stretching credibility for the couple to replace their lost biological baby with the abandoned baby girl, particularly as Ajay goes to so much trouble to try and find the surrogate mother? Perhaps it is another example of how the couple is able to use their economic power to buy what they want regardless of the needs of anyone else? Or does it show the essentially compassionate nature of all human beings?
Jennifer Maisel’s play, There or Here, is a multi-layered narrative shot through with humour, some of it scathing, including a lot of witty one-liners. It contains tremendous sadness and want. An intelligent, well-written and cleverly structured play, it time slips back and forth with multiple characters expertly played by a talented cast.