Khandan, Royal Court Upstairs, London – review

That old saying that you can choose your friends, but not your family looms large in Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s new play, which focuses on the combustible mix of affection and resentment in one Sikh family. Weary widowed matriarch Jeeto arrived in Birmingham in 1969 and now dreams of a return to Punjab to end her days. But what of the future of the family?

Adult son Pal (Rez Kempton) and daughter Cookie (Zita Sattar) are both struggling with the tensions between tradition and self-determination. Cookie has a business, a comfortable life and two daughters, but oozes scorn for her husband (a safe match) and contempt for herself for not daring to step out of line. Pal loves his English wife, Liz (Lauren Crace), but while she works hard to honour custom – making the chah, tending to her demanding mother-in-law – he is itching to move on, sell the family shop and set up a chain of nursing homes. Their unexplained infertility is coming between them. Into all this comes Reema (Preeya Kalidas), the abandoned wife of a Punjabi cousin, a woman quietly determined to advance her education and make her own way.

There is plenty of conflict, both internal and external, as the characters strive to reconcile their own desires with familial expectations. Principles, duties, values and pragmatism battle it out, and a combination of recklessness and whisky brings everything to crisis point. But while Bhatti writes with warmth, wit and acute understanding of her characters’ predicaments, the play feels overloaded. Some of the plot twists seem unlikely and driven by issue rather than rooted in character. It is not clear why Pal, who adores his wife, would be so insensitive to her agony over her childlessness or so easily reconciled to her departure, no matter how proud he might be, or how wrapped up in his business plans. Neither does the drunken liaison between Pal and Reema ring true.

There are strong performances in Roxana Silbert’s production (first seen at Birmingham Rep), particularly from Sudha Bhuchar. She conveys that Jeeto’s stubborn and demanding nature is forged partly from having survived hostility and sacrificed much, and reveals a well of tenderness when everything goes wrong. This is a wise and sympathetic play about issues that can tear households apart and what “home” means. But it spreads itself too thin and doesn’t go deeply enough into individual characters to be as powerful as it could be.

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