The Fu Manchu Complex
Moongate Productions in association with Mark Cartwright
Oval House Theatre
When did you last have a Chinese? Think twice before you trot off to the take-away: it could all be a dastardly plot to take over beloved Britannia.
On the hundredth anniversary of the creation of Fu Manchu, the evil oriental, by novelist Sax Rhomer, is back again in this spoof adventure together with his intrepid opponents Detective Denis Nayland Smith of Scotland Yard and his sidekick Dr Petrie.
There is a hint of what’s to come in the black picture frame proscenium and row of cockle shell footlights installed across the Oval House black box auditorium, the entry of a chorus line row of half-masked Edwardians singing a sub-Sondheim “This is the story of…” lyric and silent movie style piano accompaniment establish melodrama style. The performers, all Asian, are playing in symbolic white-face.
It would be a stylish opening, if the voices weren’t fuddled and the lyrics largely incomprehensible. The confused chorus over things become clearer as Naylan Smith takes charge. Paul Chan plays him with great panache; he’s a little fellow but it’s as big performance. Now unmasked, in an ultra pukka imperial accent he starts to warn about the Yellow Peril and to explain how he gained a yellow face. Then, back in white face, the story starts of how they tracked down Fu Manchu.
Andrew Koji is much less focussed as Dr Petrie but they work well as a double act with an undercurrent of public school sexual attraction bubbling up on Petrie’s part. In Smith’s rooms we soon encounter housekeeper Mrs Hudson, bent-kneed, hob-capped Moj Taylor, still bearded, adopting a Scots accent only when Smith identifies ‘her’ nationality. It is the first of a series of comic stereotypes that this actor plays deftly.
They seek to track down their villain in Limehouse, seek for him in an opium den, where the sexual innuendos include opium pipes with scrotums and eventually come face to face with their quarry, impressively played by Chipo Chung in travesty, and towering above them with a little help designer Lily Arnold, who is also responsible for the simple but effective settings. But before that they encounter a sexy fan-wielding seductress in Jennifer Lim as Fah Lo Suee, Fu Manchu’s daughter. She also scores a comic triumph as a Ninja communicating through charades.
The whole thing is, of course, completely racist, but ironically, the caricatures of the imperialist Caucasians are as savage as those of the slit-eyed Orientals, tasteless but often very funny, though a Caucasian cast and writer might have more of a problem getting away with it. It works extremely well in satirising stereotypical thinking and the colonialist idea, pops in a nice dig at Britain as the drug smuggler of the Opium trade.
At the same time it also seeks to satirise the idea of the “yellow face”, the banana oriental: yellow skinned but white inside. At that it is rather less successful and at about 80 minutes without an interval it is far too long for its content and the level of its invention.
Writer York and director Justin Audibert have come up with some great ideas but it needs urgent editing and much more focus on its targets. At the moment it risks being self-indulgent, though a hard-working cast save it by their dedicated playing.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton