Writer: In-Sook Chappell
Director: Jennifer Tang
Reviewer: Andrea Allen
“I’m the English girl who grew up in a chippy…I’m a fake, I don’t belong here”. Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok opens with Helen (Siu-See Hang); an accomplished Cambridge graduate working as a financial lawyer in Hong Kong, on paper she has it all, in her heart something is missing.
Contemplating her lack of belonging and yearning for her hometown of Manchester she bumps into Grandmother Lily (Tina Chiang) amid the high-rise buildings and jam-packed streets and demands to learn more about her roots in a bid to discover her true self. Dismissing Lily’s protestations that “you don’t talk about tragedies”, Helen perseveres, little knowing the distressing tale of courage, ambition, loss and love that will be revealed.
Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok is In-Sook Chappell’s adaptation of Manchester restauranteur Helen Tse’s book, Sweet Mandarin – a recipe book which evolved into a memoir of three generations of her family. Far from the nostalgiac, indulgent dip into genealogy that consumes some biographical accounts, Director Jennifer Tang’s production of Tse’s bestseller ingeniously blends humour, tragedy, anger, warmth and sadness in a show as perfectly seasoned as one of Tse’s own dishes. Hang and Chiang’s Helen and Lily are a perfect balance of vulnerability, strength
Hang and Chiang’s Helen and Lily are a perfect balance of vulnerability, strength and humanity. This is a Manchester story, and there’s a distinct buzz of pride in the air as it premieres at the Royal Exchange. Mountains is a tale of empowerment and ambition, of love and of pride – Chappell’s script is a triumph, showcasing not only strong women, but strong East Asian women, an occurrence sufficiently rare on the British theatre scene it leads you to question whether we’ve really come that far from the days of occupied Hong Kong depicted in Chappell’s script.
In an otherwise wonderful production, a triangular stage and two diagonal seating banks lead to cluttered sightlines, disrupting intimacy and impact, something that could have been overcome by seating audiences more conventionally on three sides. The Royal Exchange Studio is also an uncomfortably tight fit and would thrive on a larger stage. With a cast of seven, choreography feels cramped and an overall lack of floor space makes it that bit more difficult to immerse yourself in a journey across continents and generations. It would be great to shove Frankenstein out for a couple of weeks and see Mountains in the Exchange’s main space instead – a move which would crucially also allow more people to hear, see and experience this immensely moving, humbling and inspiring story over its short run.
Runs until 7 April 2018 | Image: Jonathan Keenan