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Chopping Chillies

at Assembly Roxy

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Poetry-play about a Keralan cobbler conveys the universal power of storytelling

Image of Chopping Chillies

There’s no doubt about it, Clair Whitefield is the Real Thing. A poet-turned-playwright, Chopping Chillies is her first play, and this is its second outing at the Fringe, having been seen and subsequently picked up by renowned producer-director, Guy Masterson, in 2015. This polished, newly-directed production is therefore an amalgamation of Whitefield’s passion and Masterson’s experience, and it shows.

The premise is simple enough: We, the audience, are treated to the gentle unravelling of the unlikely yet compellingly believable tale of Ajna Jan, a martial arts Master in Kerala, who becomes a cobbler in Camden following the death of his family. Next door to his little shop, a young woman named Katie opens an Indian restaurant and, while Ajna is helping strangers through pressure points on the soles of their shoes, he also helps Katie, more overtly, with the “soul” of her food. This is no contrived love affair, but a low-key, organic friendship as panacea to pain. Rarely has a character’s journey been related with such subtlety *and* pathos.

Alone on the practically bare stage, Whitefield plays all the parts, beginning with Ajna himself. At times, she immerses herself fully into the here and now of the story, so that we are incontrovertibly transported to that moment through Whitefield’s voice, her mannerisms, her very body. At others, she is the narrator, reverting to the third person and the past tense, which controverts the standard format of a “play”, and yet serves as counterpoint to the “present” scenes, pushing them into vivid relief, wherein all the senses waken. We can smell Katie’s spices, and we can taste her chillies. As for Ajna Jan, we can taste his tears.

It is difficult to determine whether Chopping Chillies truly challenges the boundaries of theatre-writing, or whether it is simply a more theatrical presentation of a piece of beautiful prose. Whitefield herself calls it a “poetry-play”, and her performance poetry origins are certainly in evidence. However, Masterson states in the programme notes that, “great theatre should be a tempest of energy, illuminated by flashes of blinding communication” and “it should be an experience that no other medium could provide”. The former description encapsulates this performance perfectly and, whilst the script would no doubt work well enough on the radio or printed in a book, there is no substitution for the live experience of witnessing – and sharing – this tale around a stage. It is, after all, our modern equivalent of the campfire.

Whitefield is undoubtedly an accomplished wordsmith of lyrical sensibilities, and ultimately, her pairing with Masterton is a hit. Together, they convey the universal power of storytelling with a feather-light touch, which nevertheless hits home when it needs to. However, a huge part of the magic comes from Whitefield herself. She is a performer of unconscious but captivating charm and, while Chopping Chillies might not be everyone’s strict idea of “theatre”, it is a thoroughly engrossing way to spend an hour.