There’s nothing we Brits love more than laughing at ourselves, and Pariah Khan’s one-man show An Indian Abroad offers us plenty of opportunities to do exactly that. Turning on its head the well-worn theme of the white man who goes on a spiritual journey to India, here it’s the Indian man who comes to the UK in search of enlightenment, as Krishnan escapes his stifling middle-class upbringing and heads off on a gap year in search of something more fulfilling.
What he discovers is clubbing, coffee shops and the dubious delights of an NHS waiting room. He visits the Peak District, watches the Queen’s Speech, gets a job, falls in love. As the months pass, Krishnan shares with us his observations on both British and Indian culture, all the while treating his travels with the solemnity you’d expect from someone on a spiritual quest to find himself. The fact that he’s looking in such less than exotic places as Bradford and Birmingham only makes the show funnier.
Any complacent assumptions that we’re about to spend a carefree hour howling with laughter over our national idiosyncrasies are soon shelved, however, because this show has a surprising edge to it. Though the show does contain a lot of hilarious one-liners, the laughter grows increasingly uncomfortable as Khan shines a light not only on British charms but also on British flaws – particularly when it comes to perceptions of race. The fact that everyone assumes Krishnan must be Muslim; the casual racism of his white girlfriend, which hurts him far more than the deliberate abuse of the EDL supporters he meets later on; the way his younger relatives, living in Bristol, have shrugged off their Indian heritage to try and fit in. It’s far from a flattering picture, and all the Yorkshire tea in the world can’t disguise the unsavoury taste these anecdotes leave behind.
Khan’s performance style also seems designed to keep us slightly off balance. At times staring at a point somewhere above our heads, at others fixing his gaze intensely on an unprepared member of the audience, his deadpan delivery of the material is interrupted from time to time by a sudden roar of anger or burst of song. He also likes to keep us waiting between scenes, meticulously rearranging the furniture on stage whilst humming a tune that will eventually resolve itself into some popular British hit or other, from Can You Feel The Love Tonight? to Auld Lang Syne with most of the lyrics missing (because who actually knows the words to Auld Lang Syne anyway?).
The best comedy can both make us laugh and make us think; An Indian Abroad succeeds on both fronts. Pariah Khan is a talented performer who clearly knows how to work an audience for maximum impact, while in his writing he doesn’t shy away from tackling sensitive subjects through what is at times quite surreal humour. Krishnan may not find the answers he’s looking for in the UK – but if we’re open to it, there’s still plenty of enlightenment to be found in this enjoyable hour-long show.
An Indian Abroad can next be seen at The Wardrobe Theatre in Bristol (31st October-1st November) and London’s Tara Theatre (24th-26th January).