A play, playwright, and story, that were all new to me, adding a large dollop of intrigue on the opening night.
The playwright In -Sook Chappell is a Korean-born, London-based playwright and filmmaker. She studied dance in New York at Alvin Ailey before moving into acting. Her first play won the Verity Bargate Award. Her work for theatre includes; This Isn’t Romance and Tales of the Harrow Road at the Soho Theatre; Absence at the Young Vic; P’yongyang at Finborough; and Mountains at the Royal Exchange. Her work in film includes Full , and Kotchebi , and has made work for Film4 and BBC Radio 3.
The play is based upon a story by Helen Tse, MBE,” Sweet Mandarin”, a memoir of three generations of Chinese women, beginning with her grandmother, Lily Kwok, establishing themselves in Manchester . Before she became an author and restaurateur, she studied law at Cambridge University and then worked in finance and law .
Director Jennifer Tang graduated from UEA in 2004 and is in demand across the country. She specialises in multi-disciplinary work which for this production involves on stage cooking! As a British born woman of Chinese descent she is well placed to present the story.
Ostensibly this is the familiar, but specific, story of an immigrant’s fight to establish herself in a new country. But as it unfolds, the reason for the touring success of this production becomes apparent. It is an Everyman tale which everyone should be able to empathise with, as well as a tribute to the play’s eponymous heroine. Its focus is food and family.
In an era of Brexit, the writing celebrates the qualities and resilience of refugees and immigrants and the contribution that they can make as demonstrated by Lily’s Sweet Mandarin restaurant. Food is used as a connecting theme, the onstage aromas drawing the audience in with real dishes prepared and cooked onstage, uniting cast and audience. Family recipes are offered as a badge of identity and a unifying cross- generational device.
Tina Chiang beautifully unfolds the character of Lily, an ordinary woman doing extraordinary things, an anonymous face which demands prominence. She is the standard bearer for several diverse themes, migration, identity , assimilation, colonialism, faith and superstition, amongst them, as well as the roles and expectations different societies, and cultures, have of women.
Helen (Siu- See Hung) has been brought up in the UK by her Chinese family. She has always felt that a part of her story, and her, her identity, were missing. Thus she heads out to Hong Kong to visit her mother’s birthplace for the first time. However when she swaps Manchester’s Deansgate for Hong Kong she not only finds her grandmother, Lily Kwok, she also discovers things which will change her destiny.
Characters, time and locations do shift in a dream like way, meaning that you do have to pay attention, and sometimes work a bit harder than usual to work out what is going on. It is also narrative driven, told as a story. To illustrate the mix of old and new, samples of traditional Chinese songs are mixed with a modern electronic score, courtesy of Elena Pena, composed by Ruth Chan. Amelia Jane Hankin’s stage set is a marvel featuring a platform that can be deconstructed and reconfigured, Transformers style, into pretty much anything, lit pleasingly by Amy Mae, part of an all -female creative team.
“Mountains” IS different. Pleasingly so. It is also very good, taking the audience on a journey that tugs on the heart-strings, and tantalises the nostrils in equal measure. A set menu to savour- runs until Saturday 12th May.