Thursday, September 28

Untitled F*ck M*ss S**gon Play – Royal Exchange Theatre

The biennial Manchester International Festival (MIF) opens across our wonderful city this weekend and under its umbrella purports to ‘cut across disciplines and blur the boundaries between art and popular culture’. As their offering, in conjunction with the Young Vic and Headlong productions, the Royal Exchange have chosen to give the world premier to Kimber Lee’s ‘Untitled F*ck M*ss S**gon Play’, a coruscating satirical drama about racial stereotyping and casual prejudice towards people from the Asian diaspora. It manages to find both sharp humour and pathos in such a serious subject but may struggle to engage with an audience beyond the esoteric confines of the MIF devotees.

Lee takes 1906 as her jumping off point, the year that ‘Madama Butterfly’ by Puccini received its US premiere, and when the western artistes made their first stuttering attempts to represent the world of Asian culture. The stereotypes are hilariously drawn; Kim (Mei Mac) being offered as a bride by the scheming Cio Cio (Lourdes Faberes) to the ‘white saviour’ in the form of Clark (Tom Weston-Jones) with the inevitable tragic consequences, the scene is then repeated over and over throughout the ensuing century. Whether it be 1940’s and World War II (South Pacific); 1953 and the Korean War (the setting for 1960’s US comedy MASH) or the fall of South Vietnam in 1975 (Miss Saigon), the scenario is the same, highlighting the cliches consistently employed by the western authors in their portrayals of Asia.

The comedy of Lee is chiefly mined by the Narrator (Rochelle Rose) who expertly exploits the casual prejudice of the scenario by lampooning the ridiculous assumptions made by previous writers. Therefore, Kim is always covered in dirt and her brother Goro (Jeff D’Sangalang) is grasping and selfish, whilst Clark uses random Japanese words (Kimono, Kurasawa) all the time thinking he is fluent in the local language. The repetition of the same scenario adds further depth to the level of humour, each recurrence being gradually more frantic in its execution as modern sensibilities are layered on. This form of recall comedy is combined with an increasingly farcical interpretation of the underlying storyline, simultaneously pastiching the styles of previous musicals and comedies which is extremely effective in creating a metaverse of confusion with the audience. This hectic feeling is aided by the decision of Director Roy Alexander Weise to run the entire two-hour show without interval, creating increasing freneticism as the evening progresses.

Following the initial helter skelter of the first hour, the remainder of the show is more sedately paced as we move to a modern New York loft and see the characters replicated in a modern scenario. This gives the opportunity for generational attitudes to race from inside the Asian community to be explored. Lee compares the attitude of Rosie to that of her daughter Kim, the mother taking a more pragmatic approach to racism in society and believing that any portrayal of Asians in popular culture was better than nothing.

Faberes is fabulous as Rosie, breaking the fourth wall to speak to the audience directly; her powerful monologue concludes ‘Any crumb from the table is still food’, a necessarily heartbreaking attitude which was unfortunately prevalent amongst previous generations when beginning life in a new country. Mei Mac (previously seen in last year’s My Neighbour Totoro) gives a superb performance in the central role, demur and soft to begin with she displays increasing assertiveness, gravitating to wild abandon as her world spins out of control, The spectre of modern ‘white privilege’ doesn’t escape unscathed either with Jennifer Kirby (Evelyn/Richards) hilariously attempting to empathise whilst unconsciously flaunting her elevated status, proclaiming ‘beauty is a wound’ to justify her failures in life in an excellent supporting role.

With a production of Miss Saigon about to open at The Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, the timing of the decision to stage ‘Untitled F*ck M*ss S**gon Play’ would appear to be an attempt to restart a cultural war between the red rose of Lancashire and the white of Yorkshire. Both Weise and Mei Mac refute this assertion, but the publicity hasn’t done either production any harm and I will certainly be looking at their show through a different lense when I travel over the Pennines next month.

Weise and his fellow Artistic Director Bryony Shanahan are leaving the Royal Exchange this Summer and whilst their tenancy has not been the stellar success many of us hoped for, their 2023 season has been a successful one in bringing new more overtly political work to Manchester’s premier producing theatre. Unfortunately, post pandemic, critical acclaim has not translated to ‘bums on seats’ with the press night having a spartan, though highly enthusiastic, crowd. I hope I am wrong, but I fear that despite this production being a sharp, sardonic and intelligent satire with brilliant performances, it may have to wait for its London transfer later this year to find a paying audience more receptive to its message.

Verdict: A sharply written satire with superb performances, expertly holding casual racism and cultural misrepresentation to account.

Playing until 22nd July,

Reviewer: Paul Wilcox

Reviewed: 30th June 2023

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.