Melbourne University Sri Lankan Students’ Association’s (MUSLSA) annual charity play, The Biggest Richard, felt much like watching a Bollywood movie in the theatre. With popcorn, brownies and drinks sold personally from seat-to-seat, this show brings forth nostalgic feels for any South Asian, anywhere. It wasn’t just the experience, though; The Biggest Richard had all the elements and characteristics found in a typical Indian Bollywood movie: a three hour running time, overarching moral tone, musical numbers complete with a dance troupe, chortle-under-your-breath one-liners mixed with over-the-top comic dramatisation. And finally, a satisfying ending that ties up all the plots, providing the audience with the golden ticket that would allow them to sleep at night.
We are introduced to Richard, a homophobic, self-entitled asshole, who goes through life without an ounce of reflection – that is, until he is beaten to death by three ghouls. He then experiences a life-altering situation (quite literally), where he meets his “conscience” spirit, who vows to show him the errors of his ways by taking him through the most significant memories in his life. The plot then splits up, as we simultaneously follow the three senseless ghouls and the journey they follow after killing Richard.
The play is peppered with confronting social commentary bringing to light the way we treat people in our lives. Although the jokes are repetitive and slightly overdone, it’s the perfect thing to watch after a hard day at work or uni. The acting was the icing on the cake, with vivid and distinct characters to work off and exemplary comic timing, especially the three ghouls: Patty (Nevin Walpola), Jordan (Manjitha Wijesinghe) and Raoul (Ananya Sangla). Both the Richards – Tharaka Kaluarachchi and Nellie Gunathilake – were uncanny in their identical looks, characteristics and the overall personality of “Richard”. Furthermore, the choreography and performance of both the musical numbers in the play is worth mentioning, portraying a true Bollywood/Sri Lankan style. At some points the actors did seem to flicker in and out of character, laughing at their own jokes along with the audience and messing up lines. However, this added to the other strength of the play – the interesting breaking of the fourth wall. The Biggest Richard had some charming moments of this, and its subtlety was refreshing to watch.
Although the dialogue in the play contained significant clichés, there were some witty jokes that were relatable to the millennial theatregoers, such as Taylor Swift references and hyperbole about Sri Lankan food. The script had a unique way of merging contrasting styles and context, where the scenes with Richard related to a more South Asian culture and the ghouls represented a comical twist to a 1900s industrial gangster vibe. This offered the audience a break from one intense plotline to a light, uninvesting one, giving an otherwise spotty script great balance. The lighting and sound added to the strict conventions the play seemed to be staying with and added to the tone and genre of the play.
As the show was strong on the social issues front, it would have been interesting to see stronger female characters and avoiding the disability jokes, as the message put forward does have an underlying moralistic approach that was for the most part done well through humour.
MUSLSA aims to rebuild and refurnish a library for the St. Mary’s Primary School in Wennappuwa, Sri Lanka. Even if you’re not into “dad jokes” or conventions that are trickling out of theatre fads, go to contribute for a cause and help them help others.
MUSLA’S production of The Biggest Richard runs from the 12th -14th of April at the Union House Theatre.