A lot has happened in the world at large since the first time Foreign Goods Last Forever played a packed out Theatre503, so there was plenty of material for the writers and directors to draw from. Certain people who appear obsessed with the Trump Administration and the United Kingdom’s proposed exit from the European Union will, no doubt, will want to express annoyance that this latest batch of short plays doesn’t place its sole concentration on those particular topics. More fool them, to misquote Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Variety is the spice of life, after all.
Dreams of England by Amal Chatterjee sees a schoolgirl (Shuang Teng) ask her father (Brian Law) a barrage of questions about England. The girl and her family live in southeast Asia; the only concrete giveaway clue to the play’s setting is her astonishment that bamboo is not grown in England. It’s a genuine attempt to comprehend the concept of border controls. The analogy of the schoolgirl’s grandfather’s compound is used as an analogy; not just anyone can enter, as they must ask permission.
But the relentless questioning began to get rather weary, particularly as it became clear that the same conversation, with the same questions in the same order, was to take place with the schoolgirl’s mother (Eugenia Low). At least Mother expressed considerable frustration. This is the sort of exercise usually reserved for drama school classrooms, where the same dialogue is repeated with different people so as to gain different perspectives when the same words are said with even slightly varied inflections and tones of voice. For the most part, it worked here, in front of a paying public. That is highly commendable.
I Live in a Vertical Village by Lucy Sheen was a highly descriptive, if pithy, play, emotionally strong whilst managing to be both simultaneously straightforward and complex. On one level, a woman with “horizontal eyes” (Julie Cheung-Inhin), is merely talking about her observations of daily life as she stands, “watching the world through double glazing”. But the descriptions provided are far from the borderline utopian pleasantness in Louis Armstrong’s ‘What A Wonderful World’; this world, the real world, is brutal and unforgiving.
The Stone / No One Disaster Is Total by Amber Hsu includes an intriguing concept of stage directions forming part of the script itself, though there’s one that’s repeated so often (“A shutter clicks. Lights flash. Pause.”) that any atmosphere, photographic or otherwise, it may have generated in the first few iterations had completely disappeared by the end of the play. Windson Liong, Yung Nguyen, Eugenia Low and Velda Hassan display subtle humour in their reactions to unflattering (or otherwise merely implausible) descriptions of miscellaneous characters they must play between them. I couldn’t quite fully comprehend why so much power was ascribed to an inanimate object – the said stone of the play’s title. It’s quite a physical play, and rather absurdist at times as well.
Confessions by Cathy Lam had the audience in stitches. There’s usually one play in compilation evenings of this nature that brings the house down, and this was the one. Charlotte Chiew plays a young Asian lady who likes to date older, rich white men. She gets some stick from her peers for doing so, but in her view, the benefits considerably outweigh the drawbacks. She doesn’t like her own culture, whatever ‘her own culture’ is, preferring Western lifestyles and behaviours. Not much is left to the imagination when she describes herself as a “woman who feasts on Western sausage”, which implies exactly what it suggests it implies. Her white lovers come in for some lampooning too, however, only adding to the hilarity.
The Dressing Loom by Julie Cheung-Inhin stars the writer as the token non-white performer in a pantomime cast. If political correctness was thrown to the wind in the previous play, this one builds on that foundation, leaving even this unassuming south-of- the-river London audience openly gasping.
Another actress, played by Kate Llewellyn, secures the part of Christmas Eve in a regional production of the Broadway musical Avenue Q, so she tries to perfect her Chinese accent. Of course, Eve is a Japanese character (and so the joke is really on the white actress). The supporting roles in this play are performed with aplomb by Danny Steele and Chris Keyna. On a more serious note, it would not surprise me if comments expressed regarding a production at the start of 2017 at The Print Room in Notting Hill were verbatim. To summarise, In The Depths of Dead Love was at the centre of a ‘yellowface’ controversy, casting white actors as characters with Asian names in a play set in ancient China. It seems that there are still some very out of date and out of touch viewpoints in the entertainment industry that continue to be upheld by too many people with influence.
Suzy Wong: Fitting in and F*cking Up by Kathryn Golding is heavy with descriptions of childhood. The writer stars in her own monologue, which is extremely up to date, including details of a recent news story about a United Airlines passenger who fell victim to an overbooking problem. You will recall that he was assaulted and beaten before being physically forced off a scheduled flight he had legitimately purchased a ticket for. The other stand-out examples came from the writings of Confucius, dismissed as “lamented but impotent”. A call to arms asserts that East Asians should take their cue from Martin Luther King, Jr and Nelson Mandela: “Our silence is our consent. We’re not gonna take it anymore.” Much food for thought there.
Your Only Right is to Obey by Jingan Young sees Chloe Ewert and Michael Phong Le immediately trade insults and putdowns as though their characters were still in a relationship. I had a little difficulty fully interpreting the background story: as I understand it, an auction was going on. The lot was a person who was to be sold to the highest bidder. Quite what the person was to be expected to do as the property of someone else, and why certain people were to be paid for in this way in the first place, I can only assume is clearer in a longer version of the play. What is clear is that the pair, amongst others, are “selling crumbling perceptions of British culture”, and the play seemed to me a consideration of whether it is right to continue to do what is morally dubious even if there is still a demand for it, whatever ‘it’ may be.
Jamaica Boy by Stephen Hoo sees a gardener (Waylon Ma) in conversation with a friend played by Gilbert Kyem Jnr. The latter character gives us slightly stereotyped Multicultural London English (MLE), (the playwright’s fault, not the performer’s) which draws criticism from the gardener for use of double-negatives and other grammatical constructs that differ from BBC English. Forms of speech are not, however, the salient point. I liked, insofar as I could ‘like’ such a thing, the revelatory example given about how black people need not have stolen anything to be on the receiving end of a theft conviction, simply because it has been assumed by others that they would be the sort of person to commit such a crime. There are parts of London society that remain remarkably behind the times.
Trying to Find Chinatown by David Henry Hwang is, I was pleased to later discover, only the title play in a larger collection of works. Benjamin (Matthew Houston) meets Ronnie (Max Percy). The latter is an Asian street musician. The former, despite a Caucasian appearance, claims an Asian heritage, by way of adoption. Ronnie jumps to conclusions and launches into a tirade after Benjamin asked for a location of an address which happens to be in New York City’s Chinatown. But Benjamin wants to go there to see the house his late father grew up in. The play strongly and cleverly asserts that Asians can wrongly judge books by covers as much as Caucasians, and there’s something refreshing about this country hillbilly with a university education putting forward articulate and intelligent viewpoints.
Put simply, I was impressed. This wasn’t a case of establishment bashing and whining about white privilege. It’s difficult to argue against the general premise that people, whatever their background, need to make their voices heard. Martin Niemöller had it right in his ‘First they came…’ poem. Far from navel-gazing, this is theatre as its most thoughtful and outward-looking. Perhaps inevitably, some of the short plays will resonate with different people in the audience more than others. But as a whole, this was a remarkably inspiring evening.
Review by Chris Comaweng
After a sell out show at Theatre503 in 2016, Foreign Goods returns with Visions of England, featuring fully-formed short plays by Chinese and South East Asian playwrights Amal Chatterjee, Kathryn Golding, Stephen Hoo, Amber Hsu, Julie Cheung-Inhin, Cathy Lam, and Jingan Young. The night will include the UK premiere of Trying to Find Chinatown by Tony award-winner David Henry Hwang (Chinglish, M. Butterfly).
Please note, the performance schedule will be the same on both nights.
Tuesday’s performances will be followed by a panel discussion on ‘Englishness’ and visibility of East Asian/Chinese artists in the UK. Speakers include Lucy Sheen, Naomi Sumner, Amanda Rogers and Helena Zhang; hosted by Theatre503 Producer Jessica Campbell.
Founded in January of 2013 by Hong Kong born, award-winning dramatist Jingan Young, POKFULAM RD PRODUCTIONS 薄扶林道 is a non-profit London-based theatre company dedicated to pioneering new writing.
Praise for Foreign Goods (2016) at Theatre503
‘There was something for everyone in this eclectic mix of new plays from female playwrights… great acting… an intriguing event.’ ★★★★ LondonTheatre1
‘Dreams of England’
by Amal Chatterjee
Directed by Mingyu Lin
Cast Shuang Teng, Eugenia Low, Brian Law
by Cathy Lam
Directed by Beth Kapila
Cast Charlotte Chiew
‘The Stone / No One Disaster is Total‘
by Amber Hsu
Directed by Mingyu Lin
Cast Windson Liong, Yung Nguyen
Eugenia Low, Velda Hassan
‘The Dressing Loom’
by Julie Cheung-Inhin
Directed by Alice Kornitzer
Cast Julie Cheung-Inhin, Danny Steele
Chris Keyna, Kate Llewellyn
‘Your Only Right is to Obey’
by Jingan Young
Directed by Max Lindsay
Cast Chloe Ewart, Michael Phong Le
‘Suzy Wong: Fitting in and Fucking up’
by Kathryn Golding
Directed by Grace Joseph
Cast Kathryn Golding
by Stephen Hoo
Directed by Mingyu Lin
Cast Gilbert Kyem Jnr, Waylon Ma
‘I live in a Vertical Village’
by Lucy Sheen
Directed by Alice Kornitzer
Cast Julie Cheung-Inhin
‘Trying to Find Chinatown’ (UK Premiere)
by David Henry Hwang
Directed by Mingyu Lin
Cast Max Percy, Matthew Houston
Theatre503 and Pokfulam Rd Productions present
Foreign Goods Last Forever 2: Visions Of England
Monday 24th and Tuesday 25th April, 7.45pm