Theatre Royal Stratford East
The cast were fab, the energy level of the production was sky-high, but why was all that talent wasted on a heartless non-story about such an unsympathetic character?
Takeaway, a musical touted by some as a long-awaited breakthrough for UK Chinese, is a delight in so many ways that it's sad to report that where it failed, it bombed big time.
British Chinese are easy to please at the moment. Having been starved of representations of ourselves for so long, the sight of five, yes, FIVE Chinese out of the nine-strong cast almost had me on my knees singing the Hallelujah Chorus. With one black, two South Asians and one white actor, the self-styled multi-culti Arcola Theatre in Hackney should eat their hearts out and only wish they could aspire to the rainbow head-count over at Stratford East, given as they are to all-white casts in plays about the mysterious Orient (see More Light).
The lovely Stephen Hoo (a Ricki Beadle-Blair regular) stars as Eddie Woo in this tale of an East London lad working in his Dad's takeaway, The Happy Family. (May I just say that sitting this close to a set with a big menu staring back at me had me salivating for ribs throughout? I'm that suggestible.) The conceit in writer Robert Lee's premise is wonderful: the Chinese male, commonly defined in colonialist terms as feminised and either asexual or over-sexed without the adequate equipment to fulfil the drive, is represented here by a handsome dude who wants to become a sex-god showbiz star.
That the sex-god is old-timer Tom Jones (who was always a bit of a joke before his savvy son gave him a make-over in the 1980s and made him sing Prince's Kiss) knocks the gilt off the gingerbread a tad, but the overall "thrust" of the hi-energy staging provides hardly time for a quizzical "Hunh?" before we're caught up in the next dazzling showstopper.
But toe-tapping tunes (Leon Ko), beautiful lighting (Paul Anderson) and design (Foxton) plus imaginative choreography (Jason Pennycooke) aren't enough to divert you from the gaping hole at the centre of the piece.
Lee has cast his net across the culture and trawled a haul of lurid clichés which he plonks almost wholly unmediated on the stage. As I've said before, restating stereotypes is not the same as subverting them, and the show shoves one long tidal-wave of negative depictions at us, albeit dressed up cute. There's much pandering to gems such as "Made in China" being synonymous with tat despite high end technology being produced there; "Britain has the class, not China"; "small eyes, smaller dreams". And there are even several references to small dicks. Yaaaaaawn! It's not the size of the stereotypes, hun, it's what you do with them.
Full of self-loathing dressed up with a modicum of wit, the John Chinaman song and the Ching Chong segment at the funeral could all have been blistering satire shedding light on the nature of such negative depictions. But all I came out with was a sense that the writer is ashamed of being Chinese. Similarly, the dream sequence ending Act 1 was promising and looked as if it was going to undermine the stereotypes, but what it really told us was that Eddie has nightmares about being Chinese. The actor who had to deliver those self-abasing songs deserves a shout-out: Windson Liong as the uncommunicative chef at The Happy Family does a solid job and should be given tons of work after this. (In fact there are no weak links in the acting department: Ozzie Yue plays the most sympathetic character as the hard-working widower trying to raise his wastrel son. His song about his hopes and dreams for Eddie is touching. And Shelley Williams stands out as the comedy star, nipping effortlessly from accent to accent: her turn as the drunk priest was hilarious.)
Unintentional absurdities abounded, like Pik-sen Lim's Madam Chu having fled Hong Kong when the communists took power. Hong Kong?!! She had to flee to Britain from British-owned HK, ya see. Right.
What really killed the show stone dead for me, though, was the repeated depiction of anyone who cared about the Morecambe Bay cocklepickers as loons somehow deserving ridicule and loathing, reinforcing the notion that real Chinese don't value life. Twenty-one of our poorest human beings died doing a shit job for poverty pay: picking the cockles that probably ended up in the freezers of takeaway businesses like The Happy Family. A handful of campaigners ensured that they weren't written off as mere "criminals" in the way some of Woo's fellow UK petit bourgeoisie were attempting to do.
Lee sneers at and satirises Chinese activism when it barely exists as a force, at least in terms of meaningful numbers. We need more. Woo's takeaway might not have survived the Foot & Mouth Disease accusation by government and swathes of the media in 2000 that the Chinese caused the outbreak if it hadn't been for a few activists, such as the one played by Gabby Wong, going into action and saving his Dad's business. The resulting thousand-strong protest attracted international media attention and resulted in an abject public apology and vindication from the minister, Nick Brown.
What's American writer Robert Lee ever done for UK Chinese, and what does he know about us? What did Lee do when Morrissey called the Chinese a subspecies? What's he saying about the current wave of Yellow Peril attacks in the media? Maybe he's been brilliant, but I've never heard of him and I've been paying attention. All he can do is bellyache about bunny-boiler girlfriends and obsess over a granddaddy figure whom his lead character seeks to emulate. He can't even establish his protagonist as an original, a sui generis, only a copy. Jeez, no wonder we have no equivalent of Anna May Wong.
Still, what's the trashing of a few Chinese if it means casting yourself as Not Other in the eyes of those you envy?
If Eddie Woo failed his A levels at 21, is he just too thick to comprehend other ways of looking at the world? Solipsistic and incapable of forging relationships, he skates on the surface of life, lying to his Dad and girlfriends, rude to the kitchen help. Others with a deeper connection to the world are a puzzle to him. That would have been a subject worth pursuing dramatically, but the suspicion lingers that this flimsiest of stories is largely autobiographical: the writer's own flaws and limitations writ large on the stage with no prospect of examination or exploration.
Takeaway life is not all there is to the Chinese diaspora experience. Characters who reflect a bigger world out there and a richer world within are excoriated by a tiny Tory mindset which hasn't developed beyond X-Factor TV show values.
The greatest musicals leave you moved and feeling somehow bigger: Carousel, West Side Story, Sweeney Todd. Even Blood Brothers has a tragedic plot under the pizzazz. But I left the theatre feeling I'd been party to something small and mean. Takeaway shrieks a lot but has nothing to say. In comparison with what other practitioners of this genre have achieved, this is vacuous, visionless tat. "Made in China", indeed.
UPDATE: Thursday 30th June 2011 A rather limp response in the Guardian from writer Robert Lee who can't tell the difference between anger and disdain, and who pleads the "irony" defence. Still has nothing to say about mocking the 21 cocklepickers who died at Morecambe Bay, either. Sample joke: the emergency services didn't respond to the dying Chinese who were trapped on sandbanks with the sea rising because they couldn't understand their accents. How droll. Glad to see the old stereotypes alive and well at Stratford East.
Lucy Sheen reviews Takeaway here
Gwei Mui not impressed here
Book and Lyrics by Robert Lee
Music by Leon Ko
Directed by Kerry Michael
Set & Costume Designer Foxton
Musical Director Robert Hyman
Choreographer Jason Pennycooke
Lighting Designer Paul Anderson
Sound Designer John Leonard
Associate Choreographer Farrah Hussain
Assistant Director Amy Ip
Casting Sooki McShane CDG and Lucy Jenkins CDG
Marcus Ellard, Stephen Hoo, Natasha Jayetileke, Pik-sen Lim, Windson Liong, Gloria Onitiri, Shelley Williams, Gabby Wong, Ozzie Yue.
Takeaway runs at the Theatre Royal Stratford East until 9 July 2011. Tickets are £16 – £24 (concessions available). To book tickets phone 020 8534 0310 or visit www.stratfordeast.com.