A Different Sort of Review – Fu Manchu Complex, a play on at the Ovalhouse

Hello all!

This weekend, I’ve a very different sort of review for you all today because it’s a review for an amazing play that I saw yesterday =)

Actually, typing this up is going to do nothing in helping me preserve my anonymity online (which, if you haven’t guessed already, is something I’m trying really hard to do! What with pen-names and vague references and all that). BUT even if this review reaches just 50 people and only 2 of those 50 go to see this play, that will feel extremely worth the effort to me. That’s how much I value this show!

So, anyway, on with the review!

On Thursday night I had a couple of tickets to the press night of Fu Manchu Complex, written by the extremely talented Daniel York and produced by Moongate Productions (along with Ovalhouse and Mark Cartwright). If any of you readers out there are familiar with the UK theatre scene at all, very recently there was a huge hoo-ha (‘hoo-ha’, not a word I get to use often, hurrah) recently over the RSC’s casting of ‘The Orphan of Zhao’, a Chinese play that was controversially cast with an almost all-Caucasian cast (except the role of the maid and the dog, which had Chinese actors…). This led to a seminal event, the Opening the Door event/debate where East Asians practitioners gathered to discuss the situation in the London, where of all ethnicities the East Asian one seems to make up the largest sector of under-represented minority ethnic groups.

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Now, I won’t go too much into this because that’s a whole post in itself and I know not many of you are here to read about the socio-economical reasons why the above is so! But I thought I’d add that paragraph of background in because it’s quite relevant and important to the review about the play itself!

First and foremost, plot and storyline! The plot runs like a detective novel from a 100 years ago, a terrible menace in the form of villainous Dr Fu Manchu (Chinese, obviously, and an actual fictional character, appalling, kinda on par with Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon) is threatening the state of the entire Western World (or, as the play cleverly portrays it by having the protagonist hold up a map of Europe titled ‘Map of the World’), the entire World that matters. The ingenius and spiffing Inspector Nayland Smith of Scotland Yard (pffft, I thought that was really dated in a very clever, funny way. These days it’s all ‘CSI’ and ‘CIA’ and ‘FBI’) with his comrade Dr Petrie must defeat the evil Chinese menace!!!

And of course, now you need to take all the above paragraph and tip it on it’s head into the funniest parody where nothing is as it seems and black is white, white is black and everything is yellow.

In the history of Western theatre, there are innumerable instances of Caucasian actors either blacking up to play African/dark characters (ie. Othello) or ‘yellowing’ up to play East Asian characters, even in recent times, it’s crazy that no one actually thinks to try casting actors who are already that colour =P

Anyway, Fu Manchu Complex is a first-of-its-kind theatrical milestone for being the very first play/theatrical event (I think) to have East Asian actors ‘white-ing’ up to play the white characters!

I was actually quite curious as to how this would come off, they used an ingenious trick with white masks (Phantom of the Opera esque masks) which very large eyes and eyebrows drawn on, the opposite of the usual slant-eyed stereotype, which is a clever touch considering the theme of the play.

Not to give too much away, the play is ingeniously written, poking fun at many of the tropes of detective stories of that era, at the white colonialist/supremacy mentality against all races Scottish and Irish included (one of my favourite lines mentioned how the British Empire was basically the largest drug cartel in history, being in reference to the Opium Wars and that whole era) and also at the racial stereotypes against the Chinese. The whole ‘style’ of the play reminds me quite a bit of ’39 Steps’ in the type of way it portrays the story and the type of comedy it uses (not surprisingly as 39 Steps also depicts a detective story of that era).

The set was extremely versatile and a bit of a stroke of genius I felt, vertical plastic panels/flaps (the sort you see at supermarkets) were on all sides, which meant the whole set could be atmospherically backlit when the mood so called for it and set pieces could be moved in and out with ease. The set pieces were minimal but all hinted at the scene you were in very artistically (my favourite being the garden scene which 3 trimmed bushes in decreasing size placed diagonally across the stage, which gave a bit of the impression of perspective stretching out over the stage.

The lighting worked very well with the set, can’t find a fault with it, once it created the most beautiful ‘moon’ on the back panels (you have to see it for yourself!!) and the sound effects were spot on with the comedy.

The only critique I’d throw in is that I’m not so sure of the little song/dance numbers that were in occasionally and the message is just a tad too thinly veiled, but then again if such a message isn’t shouted out to high heavens it’s likely not ever to be heard, is it? So that last might be more an observation than a critique.

And that’s all from me!

Personally, rather than read reviews, I think you should hike it down to Ovalhouse, it’s right next to Oval tube station in Central-ish London. The play is running till 19th October every night (bar Mondays and Sundays) at 7.45pm and full price tickets are £14 with Under 26, Equity, BECTU £10 and concessions at £8. This is actually pretty good prices for London prices! Trust me, have I ever put a bad deal on this blog?!

More info on the show at the Ovalhouse webpage here, book your tickets now here and finally for a bit more fun reading have a look at The Fu Manchu Complex blog here!

Thanks for sticking with me through that very different sort of review, promise I’ll be back to frivolous yet essential topics tomorrow. Let me know your thoughts on this below in the comments!



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One thought on “A Different Sort of Review – Fu Manchu Complex, a play on at the Ovalhouse

  1. Pingback: A Valentine to Remember | Parsimonious Penny

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