Review by Harry Bower
For one night only on 28 February, Gurjot Dhaliwal and Megan Soh brought their new show, Asian Girls in Therapy, to VAULT Festival. It just so happened to be a night that I was attending the fringe theatre smorgasbord, so I thought I’d give it a go - and I’m really pleased I did.
In a sold-out room this dark comedy spun three separate tales into one connected narrative, through the frame of, yes you guessed it, Asian girls…in therapy. As the lights go down the audience is introduced to the centrepiece of what becomes an emotional tug of war, the therapist, Sarah. Sarah is a Costa Rican living in England and working in mental health, and her two clients in the spotlight in this show are Kiran and Cheon.
Kiran is Indian, played in her early-twenties and is nervous and talkative but thoroughly depressed. She struggles to separate her issues with parents, in particular her dad, from her own personal and social challenges, and is seeking therapy to help her understand more about who she is and how she can recover from a damaging recent breakup. But definitely, definitely not to be prescribed pills. Kiran is the most traditionally funny character in a set of three pretty amusing participants and stands out as the most rounded. There is a depth to the backstory which unravels throughout the piece which give her credence and believability.
Cheon is of a similar age and is fully self-destructive. She is seeking therapy to either solve or at least talk about her problems urinating too frequently, and to address her impossible relationships with everyone in her life. This is most likely owing to a fiery and sarcastic personality, though we later find out there is a deeper psychological challenge at play with regards to her Chinese heritage, family expectations, sibling trauma and Cheon’s relative privilege. As a character Cheon is manic. Though not specified there is clearly supposed to be some sort of mental health condition at play here and the portrayal of this is regularly and perhaps appropriately uncomfortable for the audience.
These two very different stories do have some parallels and are completed by Sarah’s projection of her own mental health and career struggles which blur the line between professional and personal when delivering her sessions to the two girls.
The premise in storytelling here is interesting, and the writers have used a number of smart if not altogether innovative mechanics to communicate the main themes with their audience. There is a consistent thread of music used throughout, each protagonist preferring a specific genre (Bollywood and K-Pop as two examples) and performing an elaborate (and actually quite good) dance number as light relief during heavy scenes. Phone calls are utilised to give Sarah a different dimension, and the limited set and props are used to good effect to demonstrate the revolving-door approach to therapy we seem to have adopted as a society. As one client exits, another enters, which begs the question; when do the therapists get their therapy, or an opportunity to decompress?
The performances in the production are accomplished. Making her professional stage debut as Cheon is co-writer Megan Soh. Giving a nerveless and confident performance, Soh somehow makes Cheon likeable in moments when they really should not be, objectively. There is a cheeky and innocent air to her portrayal of the character and some great accent work which prompts a lot of laughter. The performance is not skin-deep and towards the end of the show Soh is able to perform a confronting and shocking scene in a way which is touching and emotive.
Also co-writer, Gurjot Dhaliwal plays Kiran, and completely steals the show. This is some of the best comic timing I’ve seen at VAULT Festival this year and Dhaliwal surely has big things to come in their future. The actor is supremely believable and authentic and performs a painfully self-aware Kiran in an endearing and loveable way, changing what would otherwise be cringe-worthy lines into hilarious throwaways or poignant moments of reflection. Dr. Sarah is performed by Racks Nieto who is effective at portraying a neutralising anchor character consistently needing to reset the narrative and drag the audience back into the opposing and concurrent story. She does this with aplomb while carving out room for the audience to have an emotional reaction to her own character, which is an achievement.
The show isn’t perfect. It felt as though some of the plot and storytelling mechanics were on the edge of cliché, or at the very least a little clunky. The final element of Cheon’s story which I think was an explanation of a dream sequence, I am not certain works as well as it could do. The timing and voice acting quality on the phone calls wasn’t brilliant, though this could be down to lack of rehearsal time given it was a one-night production (and it was far from dreadful, just not perfect).
The main selling point of this play is that it is a dark comedy, and laughs were plentiful. As comedy writers both Soh and Dhaliwal have struck gold with this format. The audience are human and so want to laugh at the uncomfortable nature of being confronted by someone’s problems, all they need is to be given some context and to have the flame lit. Asian Girls in Therapy does that in spades.
This new and brave play has plenty of truly brilliant moments with sharp writing, supreme comic timing, and a warm person-centred approach to its portrayal of therapy. Its cast performances are what hold it up as being impressive beyond its script – each is brilliant in their work and should be proud of what they have created. With a little fine tuning Asian Girls in Therapy could be an exceptional piece of theatre – so I hope it’s not the last we hear of Kiran, Cheon, and Dr. Sarah.
Asian Girls in Therapy played at VAULT Festival 2023 for one night only, on Tuesday 28 February. To find out more visit: https://vaultfestival.com/events/asian-girls-in-therapy/.