Chinese Whispers

Ian Lindsay and Jeremy Cantwell

Pete Shaw and Ian Lindsay in association with Greenwich Theatre

Greenwich Theatre

From 13 July 2017 to 23 July 2017

Review by Howard Loxton

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The writers describe this as “the true story of a pack of lies” but it is not easy to know what is fact and what fiction for it is the tale of a confidence trickster.

Sir Edmund Backhouse was a genuine British baronet with family connections in high places and became a respected oriental scholar. He was a great collector of Chinese material, donating many thousands of manuscripts and a copy of a rare fifteenth-century encyclopaedia to the Bodleian Library while his book China Under the Empress Dowager had considerable influence. But was his main source of information a forgery, his account of passionate intercourse with the 69-year-old Empress Cixi an invention?

Backhouse, who died in Peking in 1944 a collaborator with the Japanese and supporter of fascism, was certainly an intriguing and colourful character whom Lindsay and Cantwell present in their play as an accomplished conman. It is a camp, light-hearted portrait, a Loony Tunes cartoon rather than serious satire, that Mark Farrelly’s Backhouse romps through with nonchalance, donning a sling for his arm or feigning a fever to deter investigation then cavorting around with glee when his subterfuge has succeeded.

In his Peking years, Backhouse is aided and abetted by his Chinese valet, whom the cast list calls The Factotum. Owl Young’s performance may not be PC but makes him very vivacious. It would be churlish to complain at the caricature as, after every triumph of duplicity, they cavort in amorous complicity singing Marie Lloyd’s “The Boy I Love is Up in the Gallery” with such glee.

Backhouse introduces his own story, which Ian Lindsay as director and his designer Pete Shaw set in a giant-sized toy theatre that sets its style of performance. It combines rather one-dimensional characterisation with more realistic enactment matched by the photographic views projected in its window space. When personalities such as Ellen Terry and leading political and military figures are needed, they also appear there as animated twopence-coloured and cartoon images adding another comic dimension.

First, Backhouse takes us back to his days as a student at Merton College, when his sudden disappearance Oxford rumour links to a scandalous affair with a waiter at the Randolph (the subject of a running gag in the first scenes). In Paris, he encounters Max Beerbohm (Matt Ian Kelly), tells him he had a breakdown and, boldly declaring his homosexuality, boasts of affairs with Oscar Wilde and other names and cleverly lands Max with the bill. In fact he fled Oxford a second time because of huge debts.

Jumping a few years takes him to China where he presents a forged letter of introduction from PM Lord Salisbury to George Morrison, The Times' man in Peking, played as a rather gullible but opportunist Australian by Peter Hardy. He and Canton correspondent John Bland, whom Steve Nallon makes rather less eccentric, accept his claims of intimacy in high places in the Forbidden City (Bland later wrote books with him), but did a 32-year-old gay man really have wild sex with the aging Empress, even if she gave him aphrodisiacs?

Fortunately we don’t get to watch it! But we do see him successfully get away with phoney arms deals for British troops in the Boer War, swindle an American printer of banknotes, set up a scam involving sales of non-existent British warships to Japan and China and hoodwink a Russian military representative. How much is real and how much is fantasy? Perhaps it doesn’t matter for it is all treated very light-heartedly.

There is a nod to the serious in reference to the expansion of British Imperialism and Backhouse's schemes are involved in the Boer War, the Great War and the Box Rebellion, but this play doesn’t aim at political satire. Backhouse was outrageous and got away with it.

The writing, and especially Owl Young’s Chinese Factotum, put us on his side so we can’t be outraged, but though his cons may get grander the play doesn’t add growing layers of hilarity and it needs more bite. It is amusing but not as funny as it seems to promise. It feels a bit like the book of an old musical comedy, but Backhouse has cheated us and not delivered the songs that would detail what he got away with.