Review: His Mother’s Voice (Bakehouse Theatre Company)

rsz_attachmentVenue: ATYP (Walsh Bay NSW), Apr 30 – May 17, 2014
Director: Suzanne Millar
Playwright: Justin Fleming
Actors: Alice Keohavong, Angela Tran, Arisa Yura, Dannielle Jackson, Harry Tseng, John Gomez Goodway, Jonathan Lourdes, Michael Gooley, Monica Sayers, Renee Lim, Isaiah Powell
Image by Tessa Tran, Breathing Light Photography

Theatre review
China’s Cultural Revolution ended officially in October 1976, but its after-effects are felt everyday the world over. Today, China’s influence on the global economy develops rapidly, and the country is now widely known to be Australia’s largest trading partner. According to the 2011 census, 4 percent of Australians identify themselves as having Chinese ancestry, and that number continues to grow. Justin Fleming’s His Mother’s Voice is a story about the Cultural Revolution, and the defection of a Chinese pianist to Australia.

Fleming’s script is colourfully structured. With the story of Qian Liu as a young boy, it sets out to provide a dramatic background of the Cultural Revolution that would assist audiences who might be unfamiliar with that slice of history. When Qian matures and becomes a successful pianist, he takes an opportunity to defect to Australia, and the story takes a turn that allows a more direct connection with its intended audience. Fleming’s focus however resides with the relationship between Qian and his mother Yang Jia, who struggles against all odds to teach her son the piano, in the firm belief that music is integral to their family identity and survival. The universal ties between parent and child is rightly central to the story, as it is a theme that we all have an affinity for.

Director Suzanne Millar’s sensitive creation of scenes from the revolution are dynamic and fascinating. Her talent in the use of space and sounds crafts a show that is relentlessly engrossing (lighting designer Christopher Page and sound designer James Colla execute Millar’s vision with great elegance). She has a deep understanding of the audience’s senses, and we are kept entirely under her spell. The stage is kept very busy, but our minds are always carefully guided through all the action with clarity. The show she has built is an entertaining one, but casting issues prevent it from being the moving experience it wishes to be.

Henry Tseng is a perfect visual fit for the lead role, but a lack of authenticity in his characterisation disrupts the crucial relationships Qian has with his mother, and his wife. Without a believable emotional centre, the story is one we hear, but do not feel. Qian’s Australian wife is Emma Fielden, played by Dannielle Jackson. Jackson has a delightful effervescence that brings a necessary lightness to the often heavy going narrative, but can be slightly distracting when scenes require more gravity.

Renee Lim as Qian’s mother Yang Jia, is star of the show. Her performance is powerful yet varied, and her strong presence is consistently engaging. The level of commitment she exhibits is impressive, and it is noteworthy that she exercises restraint effectively on many occasions, although her emotional scenes are unmistakably remarkable. John Gomez Goodway and Michael Gooley both play their paternal roles with excellence, and Alice Keohavong and Monical Sayers are memorable in a humorous scene as bumbling officials negotiating Qian’s farcical reconciliation.

His Mother’s Voice is earnest, and beautiful. It does not always resonate, but it is fiercely captivating. The exoticism involved in dealing with foreign cultures is often tricky, but this production handles matters with respect and dignity. Fleming and Millar are to be commended for looking abroad in their search for artistic inspiration, and for a show that tells us who we are by finding the similarities that lie in the seemingly drastic differences between us and them.