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Pyar Actually review at Theatre Royal Stratford East, London – ‘fun but formulaic’

Sukh Ojla and Simon Rivers in Pyar Actually at Theatre Royal Stratford East, London. Photo: George Torode
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Bittersweet and unapologetically populist, Pyar Actually is a gentle romcom from Rifco Studio, who specialise in developing work with a British Asian perspective. Here though, an overfamiliar plot sees a housewife’s humdrum life take a predictably passionate turn when her successful ex returns to rekindle their fizzled former romance.

Writer Sukh Ojla makes a relatable protagonist as Polly, a bolshy presence with a fine line in cringy comic awkwardness. Double cast as the softly-spoken Auntie Amarjit, she demonstrates impressive versatility, lending the older character a quiet, compassionate warmth with sharply observed mannerisms and consummately-performed physicality.

Simon Rivers’ Bali, meanwhile, personifies the usual faults of a romantic male lead.  Entitled and argumentative, he harbours a distressing secret and a hidden desire to rebuild his burned bridges. Though their relationship eventually develops a little chemistry, some hackneyed dialogue leaves their opening scenes together feeling distinctly dispassionate.

Director Pravesh Kumar keeps things moving, however, smoothly handling the play’s flashbacks and tonal shifts. Lingering on the comedy, he glosses over the emotional upheaval, ensuring the mood remains touching rather than tragic.

Jack Weir’s assured lighting saturates the stage with rich washes of cool teal and muggy nightshade blue, while the flicker of an unseen TV adds a naturalistic touch. The set, by Rebecca Brower, features tall panels clad in concrete-effect wallpaper which peels away in sections, gradually revealing a postcard view of a sunset over the sea, representing the crumbling of emotional barriers and the quite literal broadening of Polly’s horizons.

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Fun but formulaic romance that feels flat despite Sukh Ojla’s strong central performance