Elsewhere 在别处 – Camden People’s Theatre, London

Reviewer: Graham Hadibi-Williams

Writer: Haylin Cai

Director: Robin Khor Yong Kuan

Elsewhere 在别处is a solo play, written and performed by Haylin Cai about Shuyan, from a typical middle-class family growing up in a tower block in Wuhan, China. At the beginning of the show, she bounces happily from the back of the theatre greeting audience members, who are overwhelmingly young and of Chinese heritage which allows for in-jokes in Chinese, a nice touch, asking how they are. Things quickly take a darker turn as she takes the audience back to when she was 23 and applying for her PhD in philosophy which she realises is not actually something she wants to do.

Through the performance we are given insights into being a child in China, the pressures to succeed from an early age, parents moving near the best preschools and schools, with extra tutoring to get to the best universities, and finally abroad to study a PhD. Expectations are high. Shuyan confronts her father, asking for a year out, simply to stop and reflect on her life, having always been told what to do and who to be. He feels she is ungrateful as he has always worked hard so that his only child may progress financially, sadly for Shuyan, conflating wealth with happiness.

So starts Shuyan’s journey to ‘elsewhere’, a train journey to another city, another place where to find herself but what she actually finds is depression.

Cai takes us through this very personal story with elements of clowning, a dark fairytale told through traditional shadow puppetry, gentle humour and contemplation. Shuyan reflects on childhood memories of fun, laughs and freedom which, in her mind, were immediately curtailed with a telling off by one of her ambitious parents. Life elsewhere is somewhere where she can feel no feelings and where her senses are dulled.

Simple set designs transport us away from the family home to new destinations. It becomes very dark with an excellent portrayal of a breakdown. However, the storyline not being linear, these dark moments become muddled within the stories and, in parts, pieces are too long, over-laboured and unnecessary. Strangely for a play about this generation, the effects of social media are missing.

What this show lacks is an ending. Shuyan, later in the play, expresses that she cannot taste an apple, devoid of feeling. However, after this dark journey, we are given no clue about her future journey in life and mental health apart from the last words ‘I can now taste the apple’ but the audience is simply left to guess how she managed to find this path back from being lost to depression in a city of flowers in China. Elsewhere back to where?

Runs until 15 May 2024

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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