Trial of Love
Bread and Roses Theatre
Reviewed – 11th September 2019
“As a concept, it’s alluring in its originality”
Though it has a love triangle storyline in common, this is not Mary Shelley’s Trial of Love, but an ambitious fusion of genres and styles all its own, vaulting across time and space between Chinese opera and Western horror, physical theatre and black comedy.
It starts with a nicely turned sitcom premise. A wealthy Chinese bachelor studying in London, Archie (Sam Goh), calls in Annie (Rhyanna Alexander-Davis), a specialist in exorcising oriental spirits, via a very plausible app called Ghostbusters. After the initial confusion caused by Annie’s black South Londoner identity, Annie discovers that Archie’s girlfriend, Hannah (Seisha Butler), is possessed by the spirit of Ann (Ning Lu), the lover Archie left behind in China. In a sudden change of mood, Ann now takes over the stage to sing her sad story, in flowing costume and with precise dance steps in the Chinese opera tradition. Then the genre moves on to ‘scary movie’, as Ann’s ghost variously inhabits, fights and controls the other characters.
As a concept, it’s alluring in its originality. Despite modern setting and dialogue the performance retains the formal quality it inherits from its roots, with percussion marking the beats, stylised poses and exaggerated facial expressions to portray the emotional narrative. There is a suspicion that the production is forged into its unusual shape to suit the personnel available, yet as an apparently random collision of ideas it wards off the ever-present danger of baffling the audience. Ning Lu’s classical training is apparent as Ann, but Director Sally Jiayun Xu must take much credit for blending the ensemble so fluidly, as well as for the production’s (otherwise uncredited) art direction, careful use of colours and costume.
The script is a kind of love triangle itself, between the Director’s modernisation of an ancient tale and its westernisation by Dwain Brown but, however it was devised, its tight dialogue and meticulous execution allow it to slalom through funny, then beautiful, magical then scary without much difficulty, very much helped by slick lighting changes (Melanie Percy) and sound (Andrea Lungay). The mesmerising spectacle ends with a neat coda as tea is ritually taken by the remaining characters.
Though elegantly done, there are a few holes and oddities, perhaps lost in translation. Archie is supposed to be wealthy, yet later appears to be financially supported by his hardworking, abandoned first lover, who is also busy haunting his girlfriend. The theme of stereotyping and interrelating cultures that is set up so intriguingly at the start is undermined by being left unexplored. The unhelpful naming of the characters appears to be an unmotivated whim. However, the outcome is fresh, witty, visually enchanting and not without depth, while the universal themes of love, greed and betrayal keep it one piece.
Reviewed by Dominic Gettins
Trial of Love
Bread and Roses Theatre until 14th September
Previously reviewed at this venue: