Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok
Stratford Circus Arts Centre
Reviewed – 19th April 2018
“Jennifer Tang’s direction is inspired, giving vivid life to the world of the play and weaving the text into an abstract, but very real, whole”
This is a family story rooted in one woman’s determination to move mountains to create a better life for herself and her daughter. It is also a true story, based on Helen Tse’s memoir ‘Sweet Mandarin,’ and adapted for the stage by In-Sook Chappell.
The play begins with Helen, a successful financial lawyer. She has taken a job in Hong Kong, hoping to find a part of her history that she knows nothing about, and to connect with the place her family came from. But she feels out of place, she’s ‘a girl who grew up in a chippy,’ and the crazy pace and crowds of Hong Kong feel far from home. Then Helen meets her grandmother Lily Kwok, now young again, and dreams Lily’s life, sharing in, and experiencing, the history she wants to know, and learning about Lily’s dreams. The relationship between Siu-See Hung’s Helen and Tina Chiang’s Lily is touching and powerful. As Helen learns more about her grandmother’s life she understands why Lily never wanted to tell her story.
The play moves around in time, as Lily reluctantly lets Helen experience a life she never could have known. Helen sees the extreme poverty of her mother’s first years, her grandmother’s struggle to earn enough money to feed her baby and her ailing mother. She ‘becomes’ Lily, as she meets her grandfather and comes to realise the brutality of so much of Lily’s life in Hong Kong. There is visceral menace in the staging of the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during the second world war, and despair in Lily’s struggle to survive. But there are also moments of delicious humour, and a luminous sense of women connecting across the generations.
There are some memorable performances, and none more so than Ruth Gibson’s portrayal of Mrs Woodman, an upper class Englishwoman who Lily works for as a maid. Mrs Woodman treats Lily with kindness and a casual, unconscious racism that is shocking but hilariously done. The other cast members, Matthew Leonheart, Minhee Yeo, Rina Takasaki and Andy Kettu play a range of characters, managing to clearly inhabit each one. Takasaki’s performance as Mable, Lily’s daughter, is as moving as Kettu’s Japanese soldier is terrifying. Leonheart’s woman charming Chan, who marries Lily and descends into opium addiction, is far from the stereotype the role could suggest, and Yeo’s Kit Ye gives a fun glimpse of a warm relationship with Lily, showing the strength that women can give each other when times are hard.
Jennifer Tang’s direction is inspired, giving vivid life to the world of the play and weaving the text into an abstract, but very real, whole. The action is often choreographed, using the seven actors to create cityscapes and atmosphere, beautifully devised by Movement Director Lucy Cullingford. Amelia Jane Harkin’s set is simple, evocative and flexible and, coupled with Elena Pena’s soundscape and Amy May’s lighting design, it transports the audience into Hong Kong’s past. When the second half opens with Lily cooking on stage the sensory experience is complete!
Food is a theme of the play. When Lily has enough money she opens one of the first Chinese restaurants in England. Helen has inherited her grandmother’s love of food, and would rather cook than be a lawyer, but she is fulfilling her family’s expectations, being a good daughter. Will she have the courage to tell Lily that she would rather open a restaurant? My only criticism of the play is that it cut off too soon, leaving the relationship between Lily and her daughter unresolved, and skipping over the early years in England too quickly. I would have liked a little more.
We know that, in reality, Helen did open a restaurant. Along with her two sisters she opened ‘Sweet Mandarin,’ a celebrated Chinese restaurant in Manchester. Next time I am in town I’m booking a table!
Reviewed by Katre
Photography by Jonathan Keenan
Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok
Stratford Circus Arts Centre until 21st April