The last time Just Like That, a play set in Dubai, was staged, the world was a very different place. The comedy, which centres on residents living on the same floor in an apartment block in JLT, debuted in April 2018 and was staged again in 2019 after a successful eight-show run.
Now, as the production returns for the third time – on July 8 and July 10 at The Theatre, Mall of the Emirates – its cast and crew say they are determined to bring back the audience and the success it enjoyed pre-pandemic.
"We all need some reason to laugh," says Asad Raza Khan, an actor who co-wrote Just Like That with journalist friend Manju Ramanan.
"It is a very unique Dubai story, which audiences have loved and enjoyed over the past three years. We have had more than 10 sold-out shows and there was a lot of demand to bring it back. We also feel that after the past year, we all need to celebrate and enjoy live entertainment."
The play focuses on the lives of seven characters: an Emirati writer and his wife, a British businessman, a European entrepreneur, a Lebanese air hostess, a South Indian security guard and a South Asian banker.
The play’s story has also evolved with the times, says Khan, who plays Armaan, the banker.
“The plot, characters and jokes are all version 3.0. However, we had to make a call of making the show post-pandemic, or keeping the ethos the same as what life was before it. Come to the show to find out which side of the coin the penny dropped,” he teases.
Director Priyanka Johri points out that while the script remains largely the same with a few updates, staging it at a new venue and with a few new cast members means the production is completely different.
“Each actor brings their own uniqueness to a production and it’s my job to get the best out of them. It’s a different product each time I direct it,” she says.
“The way I visualise each scene and its interactions are different. I also tell the repeating actors not to remember or follow what we did last time. Even for me it’s a new script copy, and a whole new wave of creativity.”
Johri, who’s been a prominent member of the UAE theatre community since 2010, is also an actor and producer, with more than 30 projects behind her.
The pandemic has made the rehearsal process more extensive, she says.
"I tried to break up the rehearsals as much as I could so that the cast was divided to maintain social distancing as not everyone on the cast showed up on the same day. This is a much longer process and a mammoth task to achieve as well, since the entire cast would have met only a couple of weeks before the show," she explains.
All UAE government protocols were strictly followed, says Khan, whose Tall Tales Productions is producing the play along with online platform Viu.
“We had to ensure that the entire cast was vaccinated first and we will also ensure that the audience and the cast and crew have a safe experience first and foremost.”
He hopes Just Like That's relatable storyline will win over new audiences.
“People living in Dubai, new to Dubai, visiting Dubai ... all will be able to see glimpses of their lives on stage,” he says.
That aspect is what drew comedienne Imah Dumagay, who plays a character called Joy, to her role.
"JLT is not only relatable but it's fun and entertaining," she says, adding it also gave her the chance to dip her toes into a different medium.
“In acting, you have to morph into a different character to give life to it. In stand-up, the more you can be yourself the better,” she says. “Although my character is also a Filipina, I am not Joy. She is full of positivity but in a subtle way. Personally I’m very loud, so the director and I had a little bit of a hard time tuning me down.”
Just Like That will leave audiences with a smile on their faces, she promises.
“We are bombarded with stressful stuff during the week, once in a while we all deserve a good stress-reliever that also comes with really valuable lessons. It’s exactly what we need right now.”
Tickets to Just Like That are available here from Dh80