reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 24 April
In-Sook Chappell adaptation of the novel Sweet Mandarin by Helen Tse is a multi-layered affair. That’s entirely appropriate, for this story of four generations of a Chinese family plays with time.
It begins with Helen (Siu-See Hung), an English-born and -educated lawyer, arriving in Hong Kong, the island her grandmother left just after the Second World War for a new life, sponsored by her home-returning employers. She soon feels she is the proverbial fish out of water.
Trying to make sense of her past and to meld it with her present and an array of possible futures, she is guided through her family’s past by a sort of avatar of her grandmother Lily (Tina Chiang). It’s a story bedevilled by feckless men and the collision of several cultures.
You need at first to concentrate hard in order to immerse yourself in the time-shifted nuances, then the logic – and at times the dreadful inevitability – of the drama sinks in. Food is the unifying factor.
I’m surprised the audience don’t rush onto the stage as the delicious smells from Helen/Lily’s cooker at the opening of the second act pervade the theatre. Those who have lived in poverty or under enemy occupation do tend to fixate on eating.
Jennifer Tang’s direction within Amelia Jane Hankin’s stepped set balances the dramatic levels. Matthew Leonhart plays the two men who think they have power over their wives while Andy Kettu provides contrasted studies of a go-getting young Japanese financier and a brutal Japanese soldier.
Two English women alter the course of Lily’s life – Miss Price and Mrs Woodman. Both are well contrasted by Ruth Gibson. Minhee Yeo and Rina Takasaki complete the cast. Elena Pena’s soundscape reminds us that China is not a silent society.
Four star rating.
Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok continues at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 25 April. It is also at the Key Theatre, Peterborough between 1 and 2 May and at the Palace Theatre, Watford from 16 to 19 May as part of a national tour which continues until 2 June.