Going to the theatre with my mother is always a challenge. She likes more sequins per square inch than I’m really comfortable with, and as far as she’s concerned all my choices are pretentious until proven otherwise. So suggesting Chi Chi Bunichi was a risk. Still, on the promise of being given a cup of tea at the outset, I thought we might just get away with it.
Chi Chi Bunichi is a devised ensemble performance exploring the resonant qualities of Ladino, a dying language once widely spoken throughout the Balkans, but now surviving only in songs. These songs provide the backbone of a show which explores memory, the carrying of children and ghosts, lost communities, the creation of new relationships, and the re-enactment of tragedy, if not as farce, then as gently wistful comedy. Borders are crossed, some goodbyes are forever, and old rituals get remade in new places. The company of five sing, dance, tell stories, joke and serve tea with understated, whimsical skill. The audience is drawn into an intimate, friendly, laid-back gathering where nothing is ever explained, but much is suggested, through combinations of music and gesture and telling, teasing interactions.
The songs, some ancient and some modern, are beautifully, simply arranged for a variety of odd-looking instruments. Melancholy and earthy, they root themselves in your brain regardless of linguistic difference, undermining the walls between memories real and imagined, other people’s pasts and your own. The audience, squeezed together on benches, aren’t forced into accepting any particular story, but left to discover their own relationship with the material, and with each other. The result was an uncommonly good humoured shared experience, with much meeting of eyes, smiling at strangers, passing of sweeties and the odd moment of quiet euphoria.
And the mother? Well, she was glad of her cup of tea, didn’t want to get her trousers dirty helping to pick up potatoes, but by the end was relaxed enough to be coaxed onstage, to let a performer expire in her arms. “Better than last night” was her eventual verdict. Now, as “last night” was an over-priced, over-produced West-End money-spinner, whose producers would undoubtedly sue, I shall say no more. Except that Chi Chi Bunichi is something just a little bit out of the ordinary. And anyone who crosses their path would be well advised to take a seat, take some tea, and let themselves be taken on a journey.