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Dim Sum Nights – Contact at Sweet Mandarin Restaurant, Manchester

Writers: Jeremy Tiang, Thanh Le Dang, Victoria Shepherd, Simon Wu, Claire Sumi

Directors: Kumiko Mendl, David Tse Ka-shing, Polly Graham

Reviewer: Jo Beggs

[Rating:4]

Tonight is about food. Doughy roast pork buns, shiny translucent shrimp dumplings, sweet, soft meat wrapped in sticky rice. Tonight is about packing into one of Manchester’s most out of the way Chinese restaurants, early doors, and enjoying some sharp, bite-sized pieces of drama and comedy from Yellow Earth Theatre. Food pervades Chinese culture. It has almost mystical significance. The dinner table is surrounded with superstition, and ‘hungry’ is a dirty word. So it’s no surprise that the six writers whose work is represented here have created work which delightfully celebrates the joy of eating.

The evening opens with a monologue – Butterfly by Jeremy Tiang – performed by the brilliant Tina Chiang. Butterfly’s our waitress, and she’s telling us her life story. She’s had a fair few knocks, a domineering mother and an errant husband, but she just keep bouncing back. In fact she reappears throughout the evening to embellish her story and introduce each short play. Chiang has a great comic style and Tiang gives her plenty to work with.

The first play, she tells us, is “a bit dark”. And it is. Nui Ah by Thanh Le Dang is a stylistic, haunting work about a young immigrant couple in the 60s, mourning their dead child, a victim of starvation. On the other side of the world, in a restaurant in London’s Chinatown, they find that food has become a cruel reminder of all they failed to provide, losing all its joy.

The Clean Up by Victoria Shepherd is an odd anomaly in the programme. It’s lack of Chinese-ness makes you question its place here, and it’s the weakest piece in terms of both its script and direction. Even so, Oliver Biles gives a heart-warming performance as a teenage boy whose clumsy chat up skills get him into increasingly hot water.

Yam Sing (the Chinese version of ‘cheers!’), by Simon Wu, is a cleverly structured tale told by two gate-crashers at a wedding. Stuck at the back of an enormous dining hall, they share their painful stories of love and loss as numerous celebratory dishes are brought to the table – sharks fin soup representing wealth, suckling pig for virginity, lobster for wealth. As they devour the banquet they wallow in what they’ve lost – but how bad can things be when there’s food on the table and a friend to share it with?

Direction of almost all the works suffers from the fact that the scripts create a need for people to be sitting at dining tables – on a stage the work would be overly static, but the restaurant setting put audience and performer on the same level. At times it’s like you’re just overhearing the conversation at the next table but Clare Sumi considerably ups the pace in the final piece. Nighthawks is the story of two individuals whose lives are falling apart. A star city trader has just gone rogue, a girl has got unceremoniously dumped. This late night restaurant has never seen anything quite like what’s about to enfold as they both realise they’ve nothing else to lose. Nighthawks has an infectious, exciting energy, only intensified by the intimate space and proximity of the performers. They break out from the ‘stage’ area and invade the rest of the restaurant. Matthew Leonhart, who has provided solid performances all evening, really shines in this piece. Equally charming and terrifying as his mental state is slowly revealed, he is, at times, totally mesmerising to watch.

Yellow Earth slot an extra piece into the programme by a Manchester writer. It’s performed script in hand and the writer’s name doesn’t even make it into the programme but it’s an entertaining short drama and a great vehicle for Matthew Leonhart who plays a traditional naysaying elderly man. It hits a nerve with a number of the Chinese audience members who clearly recognise the type all too well, and Leonhart proves he can deliver comedy as successfully as drama.

Dim Sum Nights delivers a great night of entertainment. The fact that other, non-audience diners in the restaurant were occasionally noisy was somewhat distracting, but it’s a nice non-theatre space experiment, which Yellow Earth pull off hugely successfully.

Runs until 1 November 2012

 

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