Happy Birthday Sunita (tour – Watford)

Playwright Harvey Virdi cites Mike Leigh’s “Abigail’s Party” as one of the inspirations for “Happy Birthday Sunita”. Fair enough, but there are even stronger echoes of Ibsen’s “the Dolls’House”.

As with both Ibsen and Leigh, festive occasions are the catalyst for irreversible domestic upheaval. Sunita, whose 40th birthday her family is determined to celebrate against her oft-expressed wishes, works in one of those dull, safe middle-ranking jobs.

Clara Indrani & Shabana Azmi
Clara Indrani & Shabana Azmi
© Helen Maybank

Twenty years previously, she had the chance to go to Oxford to read science. Her Punjabi father, very much the patriarch, refused to let her take up the offer; it was far more important that his (albeit not-as-bright-as-his-sister) son had an university education than a mere daughter.

Now Balwant (Narinder Samra) has returned to India, where it slowly becomes apparent that he has no intention of coming back to Britain – ever. It is left to his wife Tejpal (Shabana Azmi) to run the family home and keep son Nav, fashionista daughter-in-law Harleen and moody Sunita (Clara Indrani) on as even a keel as possible.

Harleen (Goldy Notya) is into healthy eating – no ghee, olive oil drizzle instead – as well as crippling high heels. Nav (Ameet Chana) is a happy-go-lucky sort of chap; he coasts along with the flow very nicely and is quite content to have the womenfolk attend to his needs. But this is the 2010s, not the 1870s or even the 1970s. Nav is in for a shock.

Enter Maurice (Russell Floyd), the builder who has just finished creating a state-of-the-art kitchen for Tejpal. That sets Sunita off – she is waiting for her father to Skype her and, if she objects volubly to a birthday party, then she's even ruder about Maurice's inclusion in the unwanted festivities.

The reason for her current state of misery slowly becomes apparent. Then Tejpal drops her own bombshell. Suffice it to say that Nora's door-slam has less impact than Tejpal's quiet statement of how she sees her future. It's a beautifully nuanced performance by Azmi, matched very well by Indrani's spikiness.

Harvey Virdi's script with its sprinkling of Punjabi rings true and Pravesh Kumar's direction echoes this. There's a fine set by Colin Falconer – the revamped kitchen would grace The World of Interiors, though you can see why a succession of curries might just spoil its pristine elegance.

This a play which elicits a special response from Asian audience members, especially the women. Its strength is that the story and its characters are universal. Many women, whatever their cultural background, are still expected to play second fiddle – it's no wonder that you feel for Sunita and cheer for Tejpal. I know that I do.

Happy Birthday Sunita continues at the Palace Theatre Watford until 21 September and tours nationally to 21 October.