Rice – Orange Tree Theatre, London

Reviewer: Rachel Kent

Writer: Michele Lee

Director: Matthew Xia

Among the women – a Russian cleaning supervisor, an Indian civil servant, an angry anti-capitalist of Chinese heritage. Among the men – a couple of Australian businessmen and an Indian fast-food entrepreneur. They’re all there, convincingly, on the stage.

It’s a remarkable achievement. Michele Lee’s play, staged in the UK for the first time, is specifically written for ‘two female actors of colour’. Zainab Hasan and Sarah Lam, directed by Matthew Xia, turn in virtuoso performances.

Nisha Gupta has an Indian name but a second -generation Australian outlook. A rising star at Golden Fields she’s young, ambitious and daring, rather inclined to the Elizabeth Holmes ‘fake-it-till you make it’ school of business. (It’s not surprising her boss who may be male, white and older – but is also more experienced – is suspicious). Yvette Tang is the office cleaner, an immigrant and a single parent, inhabiting a precarious landscape of failed small business attempts and makeshift services. She’s found a lawyer with dubious qualifications but ‘from Hong Kong. Good quality.’ The two women meet one night when Nisha is working late, and a relationship develops.

An interesting effect of the casting is that, instead of simply portraying the growth of a friendship, the actors play different roles that reinforce the possible dynamics. Lam’s main persona is that of office cleaner, but in her other roles she is always the senior figure, not necessarily – in fact never – exactly maternal. It is unsurprising that she is cool and elegant as Gretel Patel, the civil servant who does not provide sisterly support to Nisha. What is extraordinary is the way she manages, a small woman wearing a cleaner’s uniform, to convey all the personality of Graeme, a large, loud, overbearing Australian businessman. Hasan’s main character is the one with money and status, but in her other roles she is mostly a disaffected child – Yvette’s truculent daughter or the spoilt son of a tycoon.

Hasan also plays the Russian cleaning supervisor, but, perhaps owing to the angling of the stage, combined with the heavy accent, it is sometimes difficult to hear what she is saying, to the point that the purpose of the character is unclear. Again because of the angles, some of the action is not visible to all the audience. There is an intimate scene between Nisha and her boyfriend, but how intimate – only half the audience can say. (A second sexual encounter, not involving the boyfriend, suggests that Golden Fields should address its business trip policy urgently).

Hyemi Shin’s set works well. There is a gleaming white staircase structure and a large white desk, part of which (a good idea for the smaller office space) opens up to reveal a toilet which Yvette has to clean. At times, thanks to Bethany Gupwell’s thoughtful lighting, the furniture is so unobtrusive that it’s perfectly possible to believe the scene is an Indian rice field, or a hotel room.

The play does not do everything it sets out to do. The title is misleading; the story is more about human relationships than commodities. The relationship between the two women is not thoroughly explored. It’s more a showcase for the actors. However, it is certainly an interesting piece of theatre.

Runs until 13 November 2021

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