Yellow Earth Theatre
Greenwich Theatre and touring
Beginning with a chorus line entry of Chinese estate agents and property developers reciting the attractions of their latest skyscraper apartment blocks and offices, you might expect this to be a topical credit-crunch comment on the high-flying members of the Chinese community. and given the array of bamboo poles on one side of the stage and shining steel cylinders on the other, like huge tubular bells, could guess there is going to be a conflict between those who want to go on living a traditional life and the yuppie city slickers. There is a plethora of different accents, from Indian to a slight and very heavy Chinese speech and language patterns but as you go deeper into the play you realise it isn't happening in Britain.
This is production that breaks with usual practice where, when a play is set entirely in another country, everyone speaks English unless they are of foreign origin - we don't play Chekov with Russian accents or Hamlet with Scandinavian ones but various references to places I have never heard of make it clear. Since the author thanks the Singapore National Arts Council and it was first produced by the Singapore Repertory Theatre I guess that's where it's set. A clear identification in the script would have been helpful. In fact the variety of accents could be one way of representing the difference between the Chinese, Malay, Indian, Tamil and other strands of the city's mixed population, though you would have to know more than I do about local ethnic social roles to recognize any points the dramatist is trying to make.
I have to admit to not being well-informed on Singaporean life and politics: I thought a reference to new apartments never facing West was a joke about Feng Shui, but gather I've got my Feng Shui wrong and it was probably a political quip that people now look East not West. But you don't have to be informed to enjoy the humour in this piece at the expense of bureaucrats or recognize the conflict and human cost in a world where people think the new and change is always better.
This isn't the sort of struggle we might have here between the conservationists and people trying to preserve a life style and the brash modernists - that probably wouldn't cut much ice with most Singaporeans. It concentrates on one particular woman (played by Tina Chiang) who just doesn't want to leave her home. She is attached to it not so much in itself as because it represents unfinished business. She is waiting there for the return of her husband, by the fig tree that he planted for her
Her son, called Boom (Jay Oliver Yip), wants them to take the money and move. That fig tree doesn't have good memories for him and after all these years he doesn't think his father will ever return - anyway he is working for the property developers himself!
There is a parallel story of civil servant Jeremiah (Jonathan Chan-Pensely) who is having to supervise the exhumation and disposal of corpses from a cemetery that's busting at the seams. He isn't a faceless bureaucrat and, after striking up a conversation with one of the people buried there (Ashley Alymann), he has a face-off with his boss. This doesn't become one of those formulaic traditional ghost stories. It's not a ghost, it's only corpses Jeremiah can communicate with. This one can't remember who he is but is horrified at the idea that if no relations turn up to rebury him he will be cremated. Jeremiah tries to help him remember and it turns out he too has a memory of a fig tree. It is charmingly played and not at all macabre but I can't promise you a happy ending to this or the other narrative strand.
Philippe Charbonnier directs with a light and lively touch, and the play is elegantly mounted and lit by Wai Yin Kwok and Douglas Kuhrt with a sound design by Cos Chapman that neatly bridges scene breaks, The strong company, which also includes Louise Mai Newberry as Booms's office-colleague, spiritedly doubles all the other characters and, played in a single act without a break,, it holds for all its hour and three quarters.
Ended at Greenwich, coming to Theatre Royal, Margate; Live, Newcastle-upon-Tyne; Riverside Studios
Reviewer: Howard Loxton