Did you know how tanks got their name? You know, those big military vehicles that flatten everything in their path? That kind of tank. Well, whilst they were being originally designed, the developers had to keep the whole process a secret. So when someone asked them once what they were developing, someone said oh, er, yes, er… it’s a tank, picking the first, generally nebulous concept word out of the blue. And the name simply stuck. Do you know how untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play got its name? Writer Kimber Lee had no name for it whilst she was originally creating it, and when someone asked her what she was writing, she said oh, er, yes, er… it’s untitled – but its f*ck miss Saigon! And she realised no other name would have the same kind of energy for what she was writing, so that name also simply stuck.
Meet Kim. She has a dream; she wants to create a rice delivery service – Rice Now. She wants to marry Goro the fishmonger’s son. He believes in her dream; he wants to create a side dish to go with it – Rice Now, Fish Later. But also meet Rosie, Kim’s mother. She too has a dream – to get the hell out of the sh*thole (her description) in which they live, by marrying Kim off to some American and happily espousing the American Dream ever after. Fortunately for Rosie, meet Clark. He’s handsome, hench, a HIIT specialist, but primarily American. Rosie leaps at her chance and inveigles him into their humble home, he falls instantly in love with the beautiful Kim, and the next day, like a typical man, he’s off. Kim assumes they are married – there was a kind of a marriage ceremony that he didn’t even notice – but when he returns, he’s with his wife (gasp!) and they take Kim’s baby away from her (double gasp!!) to give him a life in the good old US of A.
I’m not really spoiling the plot for you; the first part of Kimber Lee’s excellent play sets Kim in a Groundhog Day scenario of reliving life in Madama Butterfly, or South Pacific, or the dreaded Miss Saigon. There’s even a bit of M*A*S*H* and The World of Suzie Wong chucked in too. Kim is given the job of representing the all-encompassing southeast Asian female in Western culture throughout the 20th century. And it’s a hard lot: wooed, impregnated, abandoned, rejected. No wonder as the play proceeds Kim gets progressively more furious and frustrated. But time moves on, and Kim is now living in New York City, married to Clark; her brother Afi is engaged to the beautiful Evelyn, and their mother has prepared a swish, middle-class celebratory dinner party. And now it’s Kim’s turn to reject the accepted norms of society.
The play is terrifically ambitious, taking the rise out of racial stereotypes but also taking the real lived experiences of those people deadly seriously too. At times – especially in the first part – it can be ecstatically funny. At others, it’s agonisingly painful. You can feel the writer developing her characters from their stock standard historical roots into believable modern people of today. It’s almost as though we’re discovering it all new, just as the writer and her characters are also discovering it – that lovely feeling when both the audience and the writer see the light at the same time. The play truly merits its unorthodox, inventive, haphazard title, its asterisks casting a fake veneer of politeness as a 21st century nod to decency.
Director Roy Alexander Weise has given this fascinating play a grand staging. The Young Vic splendidly configurated in the round, the huge empty central stage has more than enough space to suggest all manner of Asian and American homes, although it’s perhaps at its most evocative when as bare as possible. Loren Elstein’s costumes brilliantly reflect the traditional styles of Asia, the modern elegance of urban family living, as well as recreating the costumes of those well-known musicals.
It’s superbly well acted throughout; Kimber Lee has given brilliant dialogue to each of her characters and the actors rise to the challenge of delivering it beautifully. A unifying thread throughout the play’s disparate structure is Rochelle Rose’s narrator, an elegant, dynamic, and humorous presence delivering a commentary on proceedings from the side – in fact from all parts of the auditorium, she’s very much on the move the whole time – including becoming a wisecracking but also embarrassed guest at the engagement party. Ms Rose is great in this role – authoritative yet confiding, and hugely watchable throughout. Tom Weston-Jones is excellent as Clark, tentatively mumbling loving words to Kim in an obscure language that includes words like origami, Toshiba and edamame, a terrific device by Ms Lee to show the linguistic disrespect of the west for the east.
Jennifer Kirby is also excellent at Clark’s wife and Afi’s fiancée, making the most of a fantastic sequence where Evelyn patronises Kim heavily but unwittingly, explaining how she knows the pain she’s going through, dripping with white middle class privilege with every sentence she utters. Jeff D’Sangalang gives us a delightfully earnest and kind Goro, and an up-and-coming ambitious Afi. Lourdes Faberes plays the “Asian musicals mother” roles with a blend of faithfulness to the originals but also a knowing wit, and is later transformed into the elegant dinner party hostess. But Mei Mac really steals the show as Kim, in all her incarnations and situations. With a beautiful feel for both the comedy and the sorrow of the character, it’s a terrific performance and one that lingers long in the mind after the show.
Bold, innovative, unique. Yes, there are a few times when the energy sags a little, and the unavoidable repetition of the plot device to make its point may prove slightly frustrating for some. But I absolutely loved this play and its ambition. Congratulations to all, and hopefully it will have a life after the Young Vic run ends on 4th November.
Production photos by The Other Richard