(seen at the afternoon performance on 4th November 2023)
In those long past days when everybody could see their family doctor, the British General Practitioner was trained for the “oh and” moment, when a patient was leaving at the end of a consultation, turns and says, “oh and...” revealing what is REALLY bothering them.
Kimber Lee’s play is a lot like that. The first hour is taken up with increasingly diminishing returns as first “Madame Butterfly,” then “South Pacific” then a host of other theatre and television pieces are narrated by Rochelle Rose for “Kim” (Mei Mac) to act out.
They all follow the same pattern: an Asian slum, virginal Kim watched over by experienced Rosie (Lourdes Faberes) who pushes her / pimps her out to a visiting US military person Clark (Tom Weston-Jones), rather than letting her be with poor fisherman lover Goro (Jeff D’Sangalang).
Hokey shotgun wedding ceremony of Kim to Clark, hokier sex scene. 4 years pass, Rosie dies, Clark comes back married to American Evelyn (Jennifer Kirby) and finds Kim again. She hands him the doll / baby and kills herself decoratively.
It’s amusing, if lengthy written, the first time; actively tooth-grinding by round three.
Far worse, it defeats from the beginning any argument about racial stereotyping. If an author objecting to the portrayal of Asian women cannot write initial variations recognising that Asia is a vast and diverse continent and the women of Japan, Vanuatu and Vietnam are equally diverse, there is a problem.
If the point is that the women appear identical to Western eyes, then surely presenting it thus is re-enforcing that rather than setting up a discussion by highlighting individuality.
Director Roy Alexander Weise and particularly designer Khadija Raza do their best to create variety, with some clever alterations to the generic hovel scenery, also allowing Loren Elstein’s equally generic clothing to become tattier and more offensive as it continues.
A sudden gear-change to New York leads to a long and strange monologue about something or other, and a peculiar scene in a supermarket. With 15 minutes on the clock, there is sudden exposition of an idea in the aisle of one. Did Kim have it all in her head while running?
Mei Mac and the team put in the work, Mac finding some variety as best she can in her early scenes, Rose dealing well with a technical error and proving a confident mellifluous voice on events.
Weston-Jones and Kirby make a fun couple, “Officer and a Gentleman” has nothing on them, Kirby’s amusing handling of her adopted child a little light relief.
Ultimately, it seems as if Lee came up with the idea but then became terribly scared of actually facing it head on, of addressing it with equal dignity as humour. An hour would have been more than enough, cutting the elongated opening to leave space for a true discourse on the meaning of being represented in that manner.
A final moment where a white woman tries to empathise and misses totally the point should have been the thrust of the entire piece. Sadly, it isn’t, the thrust instead mostly of a knife sadly ending female potential on more than one occasion.
Photo credits: Main and top right by Joshua Pharo. Bottom right by Richard Davenport. Used by kind permission of the Young Vic Press Office.