Thai-riffic! is coming to the Riverside Theatres in June

The cast of "Thai-riffic!" together on stage, The production will play Riverside Theatres, Parramatta in late June. Photo: Branco Gaica/supplied.

The stage adaption of the comical children’s book Thai-riffic! by Oliver Phommavanh is a modern take on multiculturalism and growing up in Australia, reports arts and entertainment editor Tahli Blackman.

After numerous setbacks due to Covid-19, Riverside Theatres in Parramatta will finall presents two shows of Thai-riffic! onstage on Tuesday, 28 June and Wednesday, 29 June. The production has been written by children’s book author Nathan Luff, adapted from Oliver Phommavanh’s best-selling novel and is directed by Lisa Freshwater.

Thai-riffic! follows the story of Albert ‘Lengy’ Lengviriyakul, the son of Thai immigrants who own a restaurant called Thai-riffic! in Western Sydney. Lengy is about to start high school and is desperate to reinvent himself as a typical Aussie kid. When his quirky teacher Mr Winfree sets a group assignment focusing on culture, Lengy is forced to discuss his embarrassing family and the Thai heritage he tries to underplay.

Author of the Thai-riffic! novel Oliver Phommavanh reveals that Lengy’s story is based on his own life and experiences growing up as a Thai kid in Australia. The character Mr Winfree is also a representation of Phommavanh as an adult and a primary school teacher.

“I grew up Asian in Australia with very overzealous type parents who love their heritage, especially their food and who were wanting to spread that into my life or in this case Lengy’s life,” Phommavanh tells The Sentinel.

“As a teacher, I always want to bring the fun into class and that’s why I usually have plush toys and games in the classroom. When I wrote the nerdy character of Mr Winfree, I added some of my own persona and the stage production does a wonderful job of bringing him to life.”

Graeme McRae as Mr Winfree in Thai-riffic!. The character of Mr Winfree is based on author Oliver Phommavanh and his unusual teaching techniques. Photo: Heidrun Lohr/supplied.

For the past 20 years, Lisa Freshwater has worked in numerous independent and commercial theatre events held across the globe. She met Phommavanh about 12 years ago when she was directing a variety concert for the Contemporary Australian Asian Performance (CAAP) company and he was doing a stand-up comedy piece. He started telling her about his Thai-riffic! book.

“My son was struggling to engage with reading when he was in primary school. We read Thai-riffic! together because he was interested in books that had both narrative and great illustrations,” Freshwater shares.

“I started to think how great it would be to represent a child who is Thai-Australian as the centre of an on-stage show.”

What drew Freshwater toward directing Thai-riffic! for the stage is that the story has such “gorgeous comedy and universality”. She feels that a lot of kids from similar backgrounds will be able to see themselves reflected on stage and that this story is essential to Riverside Theatres and their audience.  

“More recently my work has been looking at platforming stories that often don’t get told. I think it’s important to ensure that we are really listening to stories told by people with diverse cultural backgrounds and that we do them justice on stage,” she says.

Thai-riffic! is scheduled for two school shows. The production’s demographic is within the 8-14 years age range, for upper primary and lower high school students. With quirky and unusual characters like Mr Winfree and the cinematic use of colour and movement throughout the show, kids are bound to be entertained by Thai-riffic!.

Jemwel Danao playing main character Lengy in Thai-riffic!. Photo: Heidrun Lohr/supplied.

“Evi O who did the illustrations for the book has also done illustrations that we have added in the show, so animation comes into that which is great. There’s also a lot of quick comedy and moments to laugh at so kids and adults alike will feel very moved by the story and its characters,” says Freshwater.

Thai-riffic! has a cast of five actors and everyone except Jemwel Danao, who stars as Lengy, plays multiple characters. Some of the original cast will be returning to this production including Nat Jobe who plays Rajiv. Phommavanh reveals that minor characters from the book like Hayley and Lengy’s dad have a more significant presence on stage.

“For the Thai-riffic! fans, you will get something fresh out of this experience and you’ll also want to re-read the book to see which parts have made it onto the stage or not,” he says.

“This show is kind of like the greatest hits, it takes all of the funniest bits from my book and the team has done such an amazing job in bringing that to the stage as well.”

Everyone who reads the Thai-riffic! novel or sees the show is going to come away from it with a favourite line or exchange between characters. Phommavanh’s favourite exchange is one of the first elements he wrote for the book.

“My mum and dad were really scared to make hot and spicy food for my friends and teachers in school because they thought it would be too spicy. The teachers and my friends were so polite that they said it was really good even though they were boiling on the inside,” he jokes.

Kate Betcher (left) who plays Hayley in Thai-riffic! and Nat Jobe (right) who plays Rajiv. Pictured during the scene where Rajiv eats spicy Thai food. Photo: Heidrun Lohr/supplied.

“There’s this important scene when Rajiv tries to act all tough thinking that he can handle the really spicy food, but he struggles big time. That’s one of my favourite scenes and I’m glad that it made it to the stage production.”

Freshwater also reveals that rather than a scene, she has just one line that she feels has stuck with her the most from the show being, “I’m same same but different and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Phommavanh believes that seeing this story being told on stage will make audiences feel proud of where they come from by the end, giving them a deeper appreciation of their family and heritage.

“It’s also going to have people crave Thai food by the end, which is probably one of my mum and dad’s greatest achievements.”

Author of Thai-riffic! Oliver Phommavanh will be signing books at the 6.30 pm Tuesday, 28 June show. His 12th book What About Thao will be released in August.

Thai-riffic! is showing at the Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, on Tuesday, 28 June and Wednesday, 29 June. For tickets and further details, visit https://riversideparramatta.com.au/show/thairiffic/.

Tahli Blackman is the arts and entertainment editor of the Sydney Sentinel.

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