Home / Drama / The Fu Manchu Complex – Ovalhouse, London

The Fu Manchu Complex – Ovalhouse, London

Writer: Daniel York

Director: Justin Audibert

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

[rating:3.5]

The-Fu-Manchu-ComplexPlease Note: this play has the potential to be outrageously racist and offensive. In fact, in someone else’s hands the scrip could be made into a truly horrendous and objectionable piece of work. One that would be a favourite among those who see a stranger with different skin-tone a direct threat to everything they hold dear and who pine for an irresponsible imperial power of the rest of the world. Luckily for all concerned then, that Daniel York’s play is treated in the spirit intended here and what could cause international-diplomacy-level outrage, mainly produces laughter and sober-reflection on the play’s true message.

Basically, Nayland Smith of Scotland Yard and his chum Dr. Petrie, two fine and upstanding British men (though by way of Burma in Smith’s case), are on the trail of the fiendish “Yellow Peril” Fu Manchu. This evil genius has captured all the leading men of the world and is spreading the Chinese menace across the earth. Can Smith and Petrie fight through their feelings for each other, their revulsion at anything foreign and the clouds of opium smoke to rid the world of the evil Chinaman?

There are some lovely little touches to this play. The verbal tics of Petrie and Smith when addressing each other, using a different term of endearment each time. Old chum, old bean, old sweetheart etc. (here must be about a hundred of them). The camp and thoroughly ruddy jolly good Britishness of the two main characters. The wardrobe of suits and silks. The horrific racism of days past seen through the enlightened eye of a modern spectator.

Actually, it’s that last little touch that should be paid the most attention. This play can be seen as a funny knockabout with inventive racial slurs and absurd characters but there is a lot more to it than that. The unhappy truth is contained in a line fairly early on. The British Empire was the largest drug smuggling operation the world has ever seen. This is an historical play if nothing else. It brings to life an uneasy British past where the subjugation of whole races and dominance at any human cost of precious land and assets was the top priority. As another country leaves the commonwealth, the empire’s hangover, both things remind us harshly that although this may be a reasonably liberal country now, Britain’s racial past which is something to be universally condemned, is still within living memory.

Unfortunately, what makes this play slow down and falter slightly in its attempt to fully explore its worthy ideals is that it’s a little self indulgent and is slightly monotonous with its caricatures of racial extremes. There’s only so much comedy accent that an audience can take. There are only so many tangential monologues too. Although it was inventive, and often incredibly guiltily hilarious, the constant racial jokes get a little grinding after a while. They seem to get more daring as the play grows on, is this an attempt to overcome racism-fatigue in the audience?

The small cast of Paul Chan, Andrew Koji, Moj Taylor, Jennifer Lim and Chipo Chung are all fine. The set is nice, vaguely reminiscent of a Chinese style theatre and really well used in the production. The lighting likewise was pretty good as was the direction from Justin Audibert. All in all, as a play, it was just fine. There is potential here to make a solid hour long show with some of the excess speech cut out. It feels like there is a lot being said and could be a punchy, interesting, hilarious, boundary-poking, thought-provoking piece. Unhappily, it becomes a rather one-note way to carry a message when there is the potential for it to be a power-chord.

Runs until 19th October

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