Moonwalking in Chinatown
Promenade performance, starting at the Soho Theatre
There is a crowd gathered next to the pagoda in London's Chinatown watching a fight between a European man and a couple of Chinese guys and there's a girl lying out cold on the ground. It looks bad, but no one is phoning for the police. This is an episode in Soho Theatre's new promenade show, played out on numerous sites on the streets of Chinatown and Soho.
That scene links the story to the crime underworld of drugs and passport trading but this is not a tale crooks and triads but a family centred story that looks at the way that people feel about being both Chinese and British, about heritage and expectations. It starts off in the Soho Theatre Studio with the audience watching a mah-jongg game in progress before they each take a coloured mah-jongg tile to decide which of the coloured lanterns they will follow on the route outside.
My group was led by Johnny Ong who's quite a snazzy dancer, though he only got a momentary chance to show of those skills. It's not any easy task to silently shepherd a dozen or so strangers through the busy crowds, timing your journey so that you happen to reach the right place at the right time, ensuring your charges are placed so that they can catch the action at each location, judging and controlling traffic to cross busy roads and making sure you haven't lost anyone. Writer Justin Young and director Suzanne Gorman have done an excellent job in working out the logistics of this piece with the lantern bearers as a key piece in the pattern, making each group into a festive procession which criss-crosses with other groups at various points on the journey so that participants feel even more part of something going on.
Johnny is one of two dozen non-professional members of the cast, volunteers from the Chinese community, who join the main actors. Gorman and her casting director have found some naturals and got fine performances out of them: it is not easy, even for a pro, to act in close proximity and exposed to ordinary passers-by as well as the audience aware that it's a play, but they carry it off.
First we meet Sammy Yip (Ping Ping Wong) and her friends: a slightly OTT but very funny Eddie (CG So) who is teasing fruit-seller karaoke king Lee (Lap Kung Chan) that he's a banana -- Chinese on the outside, European on the inside - and we are already into the cultural dilemma of the BBCs (British-born Chinese). Sammy wants to be a singer and sees no way to break into the music business here. Her sister may have got a law degree from the LSE but how often do you see Chinese singers on UK TV? She is all set to fly of to Beijing where she thinks her new DJ boyfriend is going to help her cut an album, though she's not told her family anything about it.
Then we come across a little boy (Linus Leung - though there will be little girls at some performances) who has lost his pet rabbit. Mom (Carol Wong) is taking him in search of it and handing out sheets with its picture and her mobile number. There's an old lady, Mrs Tse, among the people they approach. When the lad tells her that he is English she reminds them that it's Moon Festival, so we are on to another of this show's themes. Around the corner Mrs Tse encounters Arthur, another overseas-born Chinese, and together they concoct a plan to have a traditional Moon Festival party when everyone remembers their ancestors. 'We'll have our own rebellion,' says Arthur (Ozzie Yue), for one of the things the Moon Festival celebrates is when the Chinese rebelled against Mongol rulers who had occupied the country.
Over in Chinatown we encounter cheating DJ Howard (Jonathan Tsang) and his accomplice (David Wong) and that fight I mentioned, and then catch-up with Mrs Tse and Arthur, self-styled silver-surfer who's been trying to give away mooncakes that he has made with invitations to her party tucked inside them. A party that, of course, everyone gets to go to and where the many strands of this story all come together.
Moonwalking touches on some serious issues but it is often very funny. One string of the plot is about a waite, Ming (Jason Chan), an un-employed actor, or perhaps just wannabe actor dreaming of playing in West End musicals. He's walked out after an argument with his boss about Andrew Lloyd Webber walked out and closed the restaurant - his boss being a guy (Li wing Hong) we have earlier seen touting for custom in Gerrard Street. An encounter with Jessica (Wendy Kweh), Sammy's sister leads to Ming pretending to be her lawyer boyfriend Joe, whom she daren't introduce to her family because they'll be horrified that he's a gwailo (the impolite word for a European). In fact we've already met the real Joe (Simon Edwards) without knowing it.
One of the delights of this piece is Pik-sen Lim as Mrs Tse. She captures exactly that true-to-life mixture of an older generation trying to impose its values and a lovable grandmother who is not as blinkered as youngsters think. While appearing completely natural she effortlesly commands her audience. She sets an example to her colleagues, but they are not far behind her. On the journey around the streets you begin to notice things like some of the character on their mobiles, are they inviting friends to the party? The life of the street begins to become part of the play for this is a story about the people all around you, and at the final party you learn more about the legends behind the celebration
The whole run was sold out, when I began to write this but now the theatre has managed to create a few more places so if you are very fast tickets may still be available.
Until 29th September
Reviewer: Howard Loxton