“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.
“the onstage members create five well-delineated characters and enliven a familiar genre with some fluid story-telling”
Where better to stage a tale of London’s 1920s criminal underworld than in a venue hidden behind anonymous double-doors down a service road below Waterloo Station (yards from where eight men were killed in a 1927 riot between the McDonald and Sabini gangs)? It’s here, as part of the VAULT Festival, that the suitably-named Incognito Theatre Company tell, with immense vitality, a story of two small-time East End gangs. One, all-male, is a group of pals recently demobbed and desperate for the good life; the other is an all-female team who delight in duping drink-sodden gents as they roam London’s clubland in search of a good time. Tiring of the petty rewards to be gleaned from fixing fights and picking pockets, respectively, the brawn and brains realise that they could be better together and form a powerful alliance. Led by the ambitious Felix Vance (George John) they grow into a syndicate of successful felonious enterprises, enjoying glamour and excess to the point where they feel, mistakenly, ready to take on London’s most dominant and vicious gang.
There is another gang at work here in the team of old school friends who founded this now independent theatre group. As well as exuding rambunctious esprit-de-corps, the onstage members create five well-delineated characters and enliven a familiar genre with some fluid story-telling. Angus Castle-Doughty is perfect, attacking the role of pugilist Tom Carlisle with fierce commitment while still creating empathy. Jennie Eggleton inhabits the hard-as-nails Elsie Murphy with chilling accuracy. All display impressive accents and movement, not to mention the stamina necessary when dialogue is woven into a continuous sequence of beautifully lit moments of physical theatre. The non-stop pace allows few pauses for breath with audibility suffering slightly, but even at full pelt the cast manage to invest unlikable characters with redeeming qualities.
The high point is an illegal boxing scene in which bandages are used ingeniously to evoke the ring from various angles, including the vertigo-inducing perspective of the Tom as he takes his dive. Credit goes to Director, Roberta Zuric, Choreographer, Zak Nemorin and Fight Choreographer, Lisa Connell but also to Sound and Lighting by Oscar Macguire and Freya Jefferies. The script sags when the mob reach the height of their infamy as, with nowhere to go, the characters reflect, row, dance and drink together without further exploration of their lives, relationships, or anything else. But that is a minor reduction in the voltage of this energetic display.
The company’s all-female management have clearly inspired a team ethic, as off-stage and on-stage creatives work throughout to create an hour of relentless entertainment. Their slick yet punchy show proves that gangs work well in the West End too.