Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Hungry Ghosts

Written and directed by Tim Luscombe
Orange Tree, Richmond
(2010)

Hungry Ghosts production photo

Tim Luscombe has been spending a lot of time in South-East Asia and feels pretty angry about the despotic abuse of human rights in China. But almost as bad in his eyes is the UK’s apparently passive attitude to the problems this causes for tens of millions who do not benefit from the nation’s swelling capitalist gains.

But how, he pondered, could one make a meaningful play with a small cast about our cosy British relationship with the communist overlords and its effect on the Chinese populace?

It so happens that Luscombe’s other passion is for Formula One motor racing, a sport apparently making a headway in the Chinese Grand Prix, with early run-offs taking place around the hazardous Shanghai Racing Circuit.

Thus the Shanghai scene is set for a simple-minded British racing driver, played with dogged assurance by Andres Williams, who finds himself in the midst of a terrifying family squabble between an impassioned dissident woman (Lucy Sheen), calling for democracy and the rule of law on one side, and her journalist brother who successfully kowtows to the regime on the other.

The problem for the playgoer is that, as a character, the peasant sister, trying to embroil our hero in the cause of freedom of speech, is hampered by repetition and the very situation in which she eventually finds herself — a gloomy Shanghai prison.

Meanwhile her journalist brother, equipped with the latest MacBook, is a multi-faceted personality, wittily portrayed by Benedict Wong, with his hands in property speculation as well as media sports reporting.

The journalist is paralleled by a svelte young PR minder, played with leggy glamour by Lourdes Faberes, who has been given the difficult task of keeping the British racing driver out of trouble, especially when he learns that the British sponsors and the Chinese powers-that-be are colluding to have him displaced in the F1 team by a Chinese rival.

This description possibly paints Luscombe’s staging as more absorbing than it actually proves, with its Buddhist incense-burning before a life-size sculpture of the Buddha, and an extended prison scene in which the opposing brother and sister tell each other what they already perfectly well know about their own complicit behaviour during the early days of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 which, as a plot device, scarcely clarifies the present danger for a woman under threat of execution.

It seems possible that the Orange Tree’s extensive programme notes will prove more influential than the play itself, with a brief but striking history of China, starting with the Xinhai revolution of 1911 and an outline of the more recent Google wars.

I was also greatly intrigued by Luscombe’s own assertion that “to a large extent the Chinese Communist Party is all about winning back the dignity China lost after the humiliating Opium Wars against the English.”

This, if true, suggests that the media-savvy pragmatists who toe the party line and wear well-cut Western clothes are the true patriots, while the political protestors are traitors to the regime’s search for international acceptance. A strange conundrum.

Reviewer: John Thaxter