Comedies have it tough, don’t they? It’s damn hard to make audiences laugh. I mean, occasionally the wit might be enough to get a smile on some faces, but to actually make an audience laugh for an extended period of time is hard work. So, with this in mind, Director Andrew Keates has worked up a bit of magic at Park Theatre with Chinglish, as it’s a warm, sprightly comedy that lifts the spirit.
And more than this, Chinglish is also smart enough to have something profound to say too. For though this ‘lost-in-translation’ comedy centred around an American businessman trying to cut a deal in China is full of humour – especially in a perfectly-paced first half – the writing has something significant to say, too, on the more-than-superficial differences between East and West.
And for that, most of the plaudits should go to Tony Award-winning writer, David Henry Hwang, as he’s fashioned a well-worked and insightful bilingual play that examines the problems difference in language and culture can bring, both amusing and bittersweet.
Daniel (Gyuri Sarossy) is an American businessman desperate to crack the Chinese market and we follow his attempts to convince officials in a regional Chinese city to offer him the contract to produce bilingual signs – in both Chinese and English – for a planned Cultural Centre.
There’s plenty of jokes about the offence caused by poorly translated signs (‘Deformed Man’s Toilet’ for disabled restrooms, for example) and a smart use of a droll Chinese translator in Daniel’s first meeting with the influential Chinese Minister for Culture (a terrific Lobo Chan). The lines are clever and their delivery from the cast is, pretty, much spot on. It’s impossible not to find this funny. Yet there’s more nuance on show here than you might initially assume
For the joke works both ways – the Chinese have as much to mock in the Westerner who thinks only he has all the answers. Daniel is as much a figure of amusement for them as Chinese to English translations are to him.
Lobo Chan is excellent as the eccentric and crooked Minister that Daniel has to impress, but his light is set off by just the right amount of shade from Candy Ma as the Vice Minister, who is far more assertive about China’s need to stand up on its own two feet and not be so in the thrall of Westerners.
Every scene in this production is funny – its emphasis on fast-paced repartee, even with a sprinkling of farce, works well. But the second half brings with it a more serious touch as Daniel’s relationship with the Vice Minister becomes more than simply business. What is revealed here is not just secrets these two may be hiding in a world where honesty in business is supposedly lauded, but how their differing attitudes towards relationships, marriage, duty and obligation show the gap between East and West is far wider than just sign language.
Park Theatre, London, to April 22, 2017
Tickets from £18.50
All production images © The Other Richard