Book and lyrics by Robert Lee, music by Leon Ko
Theatre Royal Stratford East
A new musical from an American writer and a Hong Kong Chinese composer doesn't come along every day, especially one so essentially British. It is not quite such a surprising combination as you might think for, though not permanently domiciled in Britain, Robert Lee is one of the leaders of the Theatre Royal's annual Musical Theatre Workshop and Leon Ko has already created two other musicals with him.
Takeaway is the story of British Chinese Eddie Wu, assistant manager of the Happy Family Chinese Takeaway ("High Quality Food, Low Quality Prices") on Stratford's High Street. It is his 21st birthday and he is waiting for the results of his A Levels (2nd, or is it 3rd, attempt).
Eddie is less interested in sweet and sour pork and stir fry noodles than in pop legend Tom Jones, a singer he idolises and would love to emulate, and that's where this show begins. In the long opening section (too long) Eddie gives us a potted history of Tom Jones and of his own life to date, interspersed with outbreaks of music Jones-style for which Stephen Hoo's Eddie produces an entirely different voice and raunchy persona and a group of glitzy backing singers miraculously appears.
Hoo is a strong performer; he has to be as he carries much of this show, but despite the vigorous alternation of styles this is like having a long lecture before the play can start.
When it does get going we are in the Takeaway shop where the help is only cook Lum in the kitchen (speaking Mandarin, no English) and delivery girl Dillon who, as now, usually turns up late. She has been Eddie's best friend since childhood. She brings news of a reality TV competition to find a new pop singer which she plans to enter. The post brings news of Eddie's A Level results. What is this young man going to do with his life? Who knows? Meanwhile we find out quite a lot about what it is like now.
First Eddie is running two girl friends: one a British Chinese who thinks him a colleague in her East Asian empowerment campaign and calls him her Yellow Stallion, the other a tall older black girl into exotic men, who thinks he is the heir to an island kingdom in the China Sea. This is a cue for a deliberately tasteless and very explicit trio of randy romping which leaves Eddie unable to keep up. It's funny but, like several numbers in the fiat half, too extended, though Gabby Wong and .Gloria Onitiri give vibrant performances as Angela and Sheila. At this stage everything is still centred on Eddie.
Now to add complexity to Eddie's life, enter Reese, another old mate who's gay and keen on him. His first powerful number "Goldenballs" lifts the show to a new level. Reese is working for the TV company running the talent show and, as you might have guessed, Eddie ends up at the auditions and his Tom Jones persona emerges.
There seems to be an element of tongue-in-cheek send up of a whole range of pop music styles in the songs, not just the Tom Jones repertoire, but there is a sameness to some of the music and it was a relief to have a gentler number, beautifully sung by Ozzie Yue as Eddie's dad Henry, expressing his aspirations for the two of them in the family business. Henry is hoping for developments in his own life too: he has his eye on retired movie actress Widow Chu.
Designer Foxton has devised a set that allows the takeaway shop to slide away and other set pieces to truck on from the back, though it relies rather heavily on flashing coloured lights and projecte4 patterns to transform a background that reflects the banality of life into showbiz glitz. They inevitably look rather tame compared with bombardment of effects for television talent competitions, but his costumes couldn't have more glitter.
If the first half of Takeaway had me sometimes thinking 'get on with it', the second act takes off - even though it starts with a funeral - and if you can only take funerals seriously this isn't for you. There is a delicious duo with Eddie and Reese as Tom and Elvis, a riotous number to "Yellow Power", an hilarious catalogue of accomplishments by Widow Chu, in which Pik-sen Lim nearly stopped the show, and a Shelley Williams backed by a quartet of look-alikes as a stunning female Tom Jones. I particularly liked a routine that cocked a snook at all those iconic Chinese theatre things: a falling silk curtain, twirling ribbons on sticks and flags, all introduced in Jason Pennycooke's choreography. I would have liked to see more in the show; at least what is there gives Windson Liong, who doesn't have much to do as cook Lum, a chance to sparkle in the ensemble numbers.
In the second half director Kerry Michael makes up for any faults in the first half and, as so often from the Theatre Royal, you go home with a smile on your face.
"Takeaway" continues at the Theatre Royal until 9th July 2011
Reviewer: Howard Loxton