Writer: In-Sook Chappell
Director: Jennifer Tang
Reviewer: James Garrington
There is a Chinese story about a man who decided to build a road even though there were two mountains in his way. When people pointed out that he would be unable to level the mountains in his lifetime, replied that he can’t, but after him there’ll be his children, and his children’s children, so eventually they could remove them.
We hear this story twice during Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok, one of a great many theatrical devices that pop up during the play that tells the story of Lily Kwok who owned a restaurant in Manchester. It is based on the memoirs of Helen Tse, Lily’s granddaughter. Visiting Hong Kong, Helen encounters a sort of Ghost-of-Grandma-Past who whisks her back through various episodes in Lily’s life – her childhood, experiences during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, her family and her journey to the UK where she eventually manages to open a restaurant.
The story is not without interest, though you can’t help wondering whether it would have more impact on audiences already familiar with Lily Kwok and her restaurant. If the tales we hear are representative of the whole, it is clear that Lily had a very difficult life: left destitute as a child, being in an abusive relationship, witnessing and suffering atrocities during a wartime occupation, being too poor to feed her children – all undoubtedly appalling but unfortunately, unremarkable in that these are experiences suffered by many both historically and today, and the story in itself is not really enough to engage an audience.
The presentation of the story doesn’t help either. Too much of it is written as dialogue between Helen and Lily even when they are part of scenes depicting historical moments, and it’s all very episodic and confused, bouncing around history with an occasional return to present day. Often Helen plays Lily during the history scenes, with Lily as a commentator – but then there are scenes where Lily plays Lily with Helen watching, and others where Helen plays Helen with Lily watching. Being staged on a modernistic set which varies only slightly from one scene to another, it really is left up to the cast to do what it can to make things clear.
And the cast does what it can with what it is given to work with. Sui-See Hung plays Helen as a confident and successful young lawyer, so far removed from her roots that she feels out of her depth in Hong Kong and pained by the experiences her Grandmother suffered during her lifetime, but determined to see it through. Tina Chiang’s Lily is strong and resilient, ambitious not only for herself but for her children and her grandchildren, determined that they must look to the future while trying to protect them from the past. There’s good work too from Matthew Leonhart in the twin roles of Lily’s father and her husband who spends her money on drink, drugs and prostitutes.
With so much if this being a tale of hardship, a lot of it is very intense with the only moments of light relief coming from Ruth Gibson as Mrs Woodman, who does a fine job as the epitome of a casually racist colonial wife who engages Lily as a maid and nanny to her daughter, a rôle that is almost so stereotyped that it creates its own satirical humour.
It’s a tale of resilience and determination, of ambition in the face of difficulties, but in the telling it has become very worthy, earnest and moralising, and a bit heavy going. There may well be a good piece of drama lurking in this story, and with a bit of restructuring and the addition of more substance, there’d be something worth seeing.
Runs Until 12 May 2018 | Image: Jonathan Keenan