At the age of 27, and in danger of crashing out of her master’s course at Coventry University, Wei (Mei Mac) has become disillusioned by a lifetime of academic endeavour, fulfilling the ambitions and dreams of her mother and controlling grandmother, in order to turn herself into the perfect wife. She has become westernised, led astray by her hard-partying flatmate Lucy (Laura Tipper). Frequently hungover, and neglectful of her research, she is given an ultimatum by Ph.D. supervisor Dr Zhang (Minhee Yeo), step up or lose her academic status and, with that, her visa.
Tricked into returning to China for the first time for three years, Wei is horrified to discover that her mother (Charlotte Chiew) is peddling her as a marriage prospect, her largely fictional CV is attached to an open umbrella at the local marriage market. Returning to the UK following a bitter row, and after rejecting traditional Chinese values, she is, in turn, betrayed by the shallow and fickle Lucy. Wei is no more than a fashion accessory to her English friend’s lifestyle, a quirky Chinese BFF to duet on Sino-pop karaoke. And, despite her protestations, Lucy is secretly in love with the abusive Peter. The pair separate in anger. Caught in the crossfire of the clash of two cultures, Wei flees back to the lychee orchards of home, as Lucy struggles with her selfish and uncaring man and train-wreck of a mother.
Her characters firmly established, writer Ng then ups the drama significantly in this beautifully constructed piece. Wei tries out different futures; would marriage to the David Beckham lookalike from the next village be so bad? She displays flashes of commercial acumen and considers taking over the family business from her ailing grandmother (Yeo again, channelling the inchoate fury of a woman forced by history into making impossible choices).
And then Ng triples the stakes, as the terrifying back stories of mother, daughter and grandmother, and of the horrors imposed on all women in late 20th century China, start to emerge. Reveals are multiple, escalating, shocking, well-paced and delivered superlatively, with a mixture of dance, movement and hand-held lights, supplying a succession of startlingly effective coups de theatre.
The plot brilliantly resolved, the descending action ties up all of the story arcs of both seen and unseen characters, quite magnificently; ending in a joyous musical resolution. Funny, horrifying, harrowing and inspiring. A song of power and grace, and a great shout of joy and defiance.
Quite the best piece of theatre I have seen this year and a masterpiece of succinct storytelling.
Review by Laura Thomas
Meet Wei: ambitious, independent, born and raised near Guangzhou, China. Since moving to the UK to study for her PhD, she’s been settling in well with the help of her housemate and best friend Lucy.
There’s just one problem: Wei is turning 27, she runs the risk of being labelled 剩女 shengnu or “leftover woman”, so a husband must be found before it’s too late.
Unbeknownst to Wei, her grandmother pushes her mother into helping with the search. Affixing Wei’s dating profile to an umbrella, they join the hundreds of parents gathering at the Guangzhou marriage market, where the only successful transaction is a first date for your child.
Torn between the conflicting pressures of her family and her life in Coventry, can Wei navigate a path between them without losing sight of her own dreams?
Under the Umbrella
Written by Amy Ng
Directed by Justine Themen
Produced by Lian Wilkinson for IGNITE
Tara Theatre, London 26th to 30th March
Show reviewed at Belgrade Theatre, Coventry