Clair Whitefield’s one-woman show tells the story of Ajna Jan, a martial arts master from Kerala, India. Struggling to cope with the loss of his wife and two sons, Ajna moves to Camden to assume ownership of his deceased uncle’s cobbler’s shop. Katie, meanwhile, is a gap year-taking wannabe-yogi, recently returned from India, who opens up a restaurant next door, with a view to bringing the tastes of Kerala back home with her.
A vibrantly performed, atmospheric portrait of grief, yoga philosophy and how to make a damn good curry.
There’s a gentle element of fantasy that runs through the story, as Ajna uses his knowledge of meridians and chi to fix the lives of his customers with special, magic insoles. But, as luck would have it, the only person Ajna cannot fix (all together now) is himself. As Ajna helps his new neighbour improve her cooking, however, there is a glimmer of hope that closure might be on the horizon after all.
It’s a sweet parable, but the real beauty of the show is in its sonic and linguistic texture. Chopping Chillies began life as a poem — The Cobbler From Kerala (also written by Whitefield) — and the play retains a distinct poeticism. Whitefield’s writing displays a muscular musicality throughout, a vitality which propels her through the telling of the story.
Adopting a series of voices and postures, Whitefield flits from persona to persona to populate the tale with its various recurring and supporting roles. She has an impressive talent for evoking a sense of place and atmosphere on an essentially props-less stage; precisely deployed sound effects further anchor her stream of narration to the real, physical world. The language of the show is particularly evocative, too: like the dishes Katie prepares, it’s infused with the scents, sounds and spirit of Kerala.
It’s a show about repairing shoes and realigning lives, dealing with loss while dealing with subpar curry. It’s all tied up very neatly at the end — which might prove too cutesy for some — and the Indian philosophies which have so obviously captivated Whitefield are glanced upon, rather than delved into. But these are quibbles. Whitefield’s charming tale is a vibrantly performed, atmospheric portrait of grief, yoga philosophy and how to make a damn good curry.