It’s pretty powerful to think that over fifteen years ago Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis, then freshly graduated, changed the face of the New Zealand theatre culture with Krishnan’s Dairy; Rajan’s personal journey into the heart of his own culture. Today their company, Indian Ink, are still bringing their familiar storytelling techniques and character studies to audiences, but it all feels fresher than ever despite the inevitable maturity of the pervading years.

Unlike their recent more high-concept productions The Candlestickmaker and The Pickle King, The Guru of Chai moves back to the single-performer/multiple-character approach pioneered in Krishnan’s.

A semi-comedic political thriller, with colourful characters, a bold intimacy and a truly dark streak of pathos in its tail (the company refer to this as ‘the serious laugh’ in the programme notes, which is very apt), the story revolves around, and evolves from, a down-on-his-luck chaiwallah who encounters a young girl and her sisters when they sing beside his stall at a railway station. This starts events down an inevitable path that will carry them through their lives, into unrequited loves, political intrigue and, ultimately, great tragedy.

Rajan in full flight is an incredible solo performer – his character work is richly detailed, with beautiful broad range and rich textures in every moment. Not even a minor character (there are many) is allowed to slip by with any degree of vagueness and they all get the story-arc necessary within the lean 80 minute run time. His timing is absolutely perfect, imbuing tragic situations with immensely comic observations and hilarious moments with lashings of rich depth of emotion.

David Ward, as the on-stage musician, is fills his mostly practical technical role with a sense of wide-eyed naive wonder – betrayed, wonderfully, by his incredible playing, finely placed cueing of sound effects and worldly cultured vocals.

John Verryt’s set and costume design are excellently rustic and detailed. The set could fit into the smallest of spaces [it has played in people’s homes] and still carry its epic purpose easily.

Despite the company’s stated problems of not being able to contextualize this story to specific era – the telling is timeless and universal – the contemporary aesthetic helps to bring the audience closer to the work and the performers more in touch with their characters.

This production, like much of Indian Ink’s earlier repertoire, has the power to move across cultures, classes and eras to create something truly great and utterly entertaining. The show has already toured New Zealand extensively and leaves for an international tour shortly. If you can catch it before it leaves, this is one spice-layered chai that is definitely worth savouring.