Reviewed – 5th February 2020
“brimming with ideas that don’t feel as though they’ve fully come together”
There’s been much discussion lately around the contradiction of Brexiteers who, fed up with foreigners in the UK, are also indignant at the suggestion Brexit may impact their ability to live abroad. This largely unexamined difference between ‘immigrants’ and ‘expats’ is at the heart of David East’s Lost Laowais.
Directed by Tian Brown-Sampson, the play follows the intertwining lives of four expats in Beijing. Julian (East) has a Cambridge degree in Oriental Studies, and is finding it difficult to admit his love of China is unrequited. Lisa (Siu-See Hung) is a British woman of Chinese heritage. She doesn’t speak Chinese, and is quickly finding the country unwelcoming to those who don’t. Robert (Joseph Wilkins), a celebrated British writer who has lived in China for more than twenty years, has learned the many reasons it can never be a real home for foreigners. Ollie (Waylon Luke Ma) is the teenage son of a diplomat, who relocates with his family every few years. All four of them are outsiders. All four of them are lonely.
Lost Laowais brings forward timely ideas about belonging and multicultural identities, but misses the mark with an uneven script and some unpolished staging. Although East faithfully portrays a pretentious Oxbridge expat, the dialogue often feels stilted. The characters’ interactions could do with smoothing. Choppy scenes broken by slightly clumsy transitions, shuffling chairs and tables in the dark, are not aided by awkward sound cues (Liam Mercer) – whether ambient noise or music – which cut off partway through both the scenes and transitions.
There’s groundwork for some intriguing material about expats as voluntary exiles, but the script doesn’t quite manage to make us care about Julian and Robert as much as we need to. The play is strongest when it focuses on Lisa’s perspective. The granddaughter of Chinese immigrants, she snaps at Julian when he suggests he’s an immigrant too. She reminds him he makes more money than his Chinese colleagues, and that he moved to Beijing because he was bored, not out of desperation for a better life. Lisa’s experience of being caught between two cultures, and feeling cut off from the country of her heritage by language especially, is more compelling than the somewhat predictable romantic storyline she’s given.
In the days following Brexit, it’s a good moment to take a hard look at British expats. This is a show brimming with ideas that don’t feel as though they’ve fully come together.
Reviewed by Addison Waite