Limehouse Nights

James Yeatman
Kandinsky
Limehouse Town Hall
(2010)

Production photo

We supposedly live in a multi-cultural and multi-racial society but how much do we really understand about those with other skins, other languages and other backgrounds to our own? This play takes us back to 1918 with London celebrating the end of the War to End All Wars and presents the situation then but all too much of what it shows us is still too true today, although the world has become a much smaller place.

Location apart, it has nothing to do with the collection of short stories of the same name by Thomas Burke - they were published two years before the date when this is set. Although that author's attitude to 'Chinks' was much the same as the prejudices dramatist Yeatman illustrates, the play's origins lie in a real life case.

Limehouse was then popularly known as Chinatown for it was there, near the docks, that the Chinese immigrant population had concentrated and a group taking a conducted tour of this exotic part of London gives us an introduction to it. Amy Cook's set of skeletal arches at either end of the traverse playing space, slats of woods, boxes and packing crates with sacks hanging from lines strung overhead create a seedy, impoverished atmosphere and the visitor's clothes and a couple of giggly young women pinpoint period. Bowed-headed figures hurriedly passing or freezing momentarily suggest the bustle of a busy community, unknown lives in the gloom of a London fog.

In the fashionable part of city an up-and-coming young actress, Virginia Cazenove, has been discovered dead. On a table nearby is a beautiful gold box that contains cocaine. The detective assigned to the case, Thomas Burke, was one of the group that took the Limehouse tour. He is fascinated by what he thinks of as the exotic and mysterious world of the Chinese, already collects Chinese objects and, when a caddish actor (Alex Marx) tells them that an Irish woman and her Chinese husband were Virginia's suppliers, goes East to interview them. Rather than suspects these two become his friends, or so he likes to think them.

In parallel with Tom Ferguson's gentle and naïve Burke exploring his fascination with his own idea of things Chinese we have the police inquiry with his superior MacReady (Ed Hancock) pushing for a prosecution. MacReady, whose alcohol addiction is set up as a parallel to the cocaine and opium they automatically associate with the Chinese, assumes that all Chinese are criminal and is more concerned with his own success than evidence being genuine. Burke may lack obvious prejudice but his craving for fantasy exoticism blocks any real understanding of life in Chinatown.

Yeatman, who directs his own script, has made Burke unbelievably innocent for some one who is a police detective and allowed one or two scenes to be extended beyond what makes their point but he is served by a cast that give depth to his often one dimensional characters. Whether dry-suited he plays being soaked to the skin or wanting to experiment with opium Ferguson gives Burke a freshness and spontaneity that makes you warm to him despite his stupid preconceptions.

Central though are William Mychael Lee and Kerry-Lane Wilson as the Chinese-Irish couple Lee Chee Kong and Mita Lee. These are beautifully matched performances of a loving relationship, especially fine in a scene where they re-enact their early courtship. The effectiveness of a moment when they light a firework and its sparkling image is represented by lights in the sacking overhead is a demonstration of how well this production works.

Jeremy Tiang and Julia Sandford as a couple who run a Chinese laundry and Sarah Sweeney as a streetwalker and various acquaintances of the dead actress all make significant contributions in a company of expressive physicality. Yeatman makes the mistake of giving the speech which outlines the final outcome of the plot to the character with the most affected voice who delivers it at breakneck speed which is no help to clarity - but that you have to half guess what happens is much less important than the picture of attitudes to other cultures that the play presents.

Until 11 June 2010

Reviewer: Howard Loxton