If you’ve ever watched Miss Saigon, or Madame Butterfly, or The King and I or South Pacific or even Disney’s Moana, you need to go and see this play. In fact, you should go even if you haven’t. You’ll have a great time, and your understanding of the world, or at least the world of others, will be changed. Theatre as polemic has seldom been so successful. Brecht would be proud.
Manchester International Festival’s main theatre offering this year is a hit! Which will no doubt be a relief to some, and bring confusion to MIF’s critics. It’s a home-grown hit to boot, as the play and its American author Kimber Lee won the Manchester-based Bruntwood prize for Playwriting International Award in 2019, and this is the world premiere directed with great precision by the Royal Exchange’s artistic director, Roy Alexander Weise.
It’s also a hoot, at least to start with. We are whisked through the plots of 20th century western musicals set in East Asia, which reveal startling and horrifying similarities in their treatment of the beautiful young local girl at the hands of her American lover. But what begins as a satirical replaying of the role of the young beautiful ‘native’ girl becomes, in a clever shift, an exploration of the expectations these tropes generate in all of us, but particularly people of south east Asian heritage today. Expressed here in the existential crisis experienced by Kim, the central character, played beautifully by Mai Mac.
Much of the humour in the first part is derived from the accompanying narration, expertly performed by Rochelle Rose in character as Brenda, who will doubtless be appearing in your earbuds reading something very soon. Clark, the white American serviceman who fathers children with the local girls, is played by Tom Weston-Jones with great sympathy for the character’s moral dilemma over taking his child away, not to mention honestly not realising he had actually married its mother in the first place. Oh the agony. Oh the hand-wringing – all neatly stamped on by Jennifer Kirby as Evelyn his American wife who is determined to keep her man even if it means looking after his bastard child.
Kim’s mother Rosie is played by Lourdes Faberes, desperate to escape the grime and poverty of their village by pushing her daughter at the American. Faberes also appears an old lady in a modern fish shop as well as Cio Cio, the proud mother of a family of a successful son in New York today. She has a great speech about her experience of dealing with the cultural tropes and expectations which is a fine counterpoint to Kim’s breakdown.
Cio Cio’s successful son Goro is portrayed by Jeff D’Sangalang, who also plays Afi, fiancé to Kim, desperate to escape the village by marrying Kim off to the American. He hits her quite a lot. In addition, we see D’Sangalang as a a fishmonger in modern New York with a fine singing voice and some good dance breaks, upstaged only by Fauberes’ funky old lady.
Other things I loved: Kim’s run, Kirby’s blonde wig, Clark’s hilarious foreign languages, the stage management’s deft work with the set, the intertextual nods between the two sections brought out subtly but clearly in the direction. In short, the Royal Exchange at its best. You have until July 22.
Main image by The Other Richard