Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Feb 16 – Mar 23, 2018
Playwright: Michelle Law
Director: Claire Christian
Cast: Emily Burton, Lucy Heffernan, Patrick Jhanur, Alex Lee, Courtney Stewart, Hsiao-Ling Tang
Image by Dan Boud
Social status in Australia is ordered, always with the married white man at the top. Michelle Law’s Single Asian Female is therefore quite instinctively, a play about the experience of being deemed inadequate, in at least three different ways. The lead characters have to contend with the notion that their marital status, ethnicity and gender are problems, in a story about perfectly normal, or more accurately, complete people who can never quite be good enough. Pearl and her two daughters try to get on with life, but they face challenges every day for being unmarried, for being women, for being “ethnic”. Fortunately, the Wong ladies are talented, resourceful and resilient, so we see them coping well, or perhaps it is their sense of humour that keeps them afloat.
It may be a narrative that is concerned with adversity, but the show is joyful, and laugh-out-loud funny from start to end. The portrayal of family dynamics in Single Asian Female is lovingly crafted, to elicit warm and fuzzy feelings that we cannot help but luxuriate in. Director Claire Christian introduces passion and playfulness into every scene, with gloriously snappy exchanges that are as entertaining as they are convincing. Effective and lively use of space, on designer Moe Assaad’s colourful set, makes two-and-a-half hours go by in a flash.
Brought to vibrant life by a group of extraordinarily charming and confident actors, Single Asian Female features excellent performances and some blistering chemistry that is unequivocally enthralling. Hsiao-Ling Tang is very animated as Pearl, not particularly naturalistic in approach, but a consummate storyteller, remarkably powerful and authentic with all that she brings to the stage. The sisters are played by Alex Lee and Courtney Stewart, both exquisitely detailed and ingeniously creative, delivering some of the most riveting characters of Australian theatre in recent years. Supporting roles too are beautifully concocted. Emily Burton is effortlessly and persistently hilarious, Lucy Heffernan embodies obnoxious types worryingly well, and Patrick Jhanur invents an alluring new masculinity with beguiling quantities of sweetness. This formidable cast of six is likely the best company one could have on any given night.
Unlike Europe, we are but a stone’s throw away from Asia, yet our cultural and national identities are stubbornly thought of as Western. We conveniently disregard Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, and similarly, people of colour with migrant histories are routinely relegated to a lower class. Rightful owners of this land are indisputable, but the way privilege is organised and distributed in this country clearly still favours, in very aggressive fashion, its colonisers. All the people in Single Asian Female are, regardless of colour, as Australian as one another, but the playing field on which we all have to exist, needs to even out.