Writer: David East
Director: Tina Brown-Sampson
In the past few years, the UK has spent plenty of time thinking about immigration, about borders,
rights and who “belongs.” But this is far from one-way traffic, and all over the world British people are
living in different kinds of communities where a complex cultural heritage affects their lives. David
East’s new play Lost Laowais premiering at the VAULT Festival explores one such group caught
between Britain and Beijing.
Looking for a new flatmate, Julian meets and insults Lisa in a Beijing restaurant assuming a
knowledge of Chinese language and culture she doesn’t have in a desperate attempt to parade his
own erudition and enthusiasm for the country. Also feeling unsettled, ex-pat Robert and diplomat’s
son Ollie are drawn into Julian and Lisa’s sphere as each discovers being away from home is far
harder than they imagined.
East’s play feels like a work in progress and, running at around 60-minutes, there are a lot of
concepts, messages and plot devices jumbled-up here that a few more drafts and test performances
should iron-out. By far the most developed aspect of Lost Laowais, which translates as lost foreigner
or outsider, is the merging of different kinds of strangers each looking – as our Colonial predecessors
so often did – to the idea of the Orient as a place of escape, fantasy and immersion away from dull,
The diverse ethnic mix that East employs gives an interesting variety and shape to the overall
experience of living in Beijing as a non-native, and in finding a discontented common ground between
quite different people. So whether it’s Cambridge-educated Julian more in love with the idea of China
than its reality, writer Robert who never fully integrated, or Ollie and Lisa with Chinese ancestry but
born, raised and educated predominantly in the West, East has created a set of characters with a
complex relationship to modern China that gives Lost Laowais a potentially interesting depth.
Far less successful are the laboured plot lines and light melodramas that bring them together.
Everyone has a parental reason for being in China, absent fathers, indiscrete mothers or similar while
a romantic entanglement, well performed by the actors, nonetheless feels overhasty and unlikely,
while characters too easily share intimate secrets with one another with little prompting. The audience
is given only a surface knowledge of each character and not nearly enough time to either like them or
fully invest in the social aspects of their story. Consequently, these feel like a weak frame for the
much stronger intellectual debate East wants to have about being different kinds of a Brit abroad.
Joseph Wilkins is most convincing as long-suffering journalist Robert whose weary acceptance of his
outsider status and unwillingness to share personal details adds a mature perspective while hinting at
a need to deceive that a longer piece could better explore. Siu-See Hung’s Lisa is enjoyably self-
sufficient, offering a fierce front that protects a woman alone but clearly troubled by a duel nationality
that being in China is doing little to reconcile. Ollie played by Waylon Luke Ma equally has more to
offer as the most international character with no specific geographical ties but has an emptiness that
there isn’t time to consider, while East as Julian is a character who may be deliberately annoying but
could be written with a little more pathos.
As a writer East could offer more insight into the British attitudes to local Chinese people and while
there are hints of Julian’s superciliousness with a waitress and later the expectation that someone will
clean up a spilled drink (played by Charlotte Chiew), these throw away references shed plenty of light
on his subject matter. And would any self-respected Cambridge graduate really own a university
sweatshirt! There is work to do here particularly on character development, but Lost Laowais has lots
of interesting ideas which should give this Crowdfunded project plenty of scope for a stronger second
Runs Until 9 February 2020