It’s important for reasons of critical journalistic integrity to state from the outset that I’m a great fan of musical theatre, and have enjoyed Miss Saigon on several occasions. It’s also important to note that within 60 seconds of the start of this dynamic, muscular comedy drama I was laughing loudly along with the entire Royal Exchange audience. Conflict of interest declaration over.
It’s a show with a ludicrously unwieldy title, Untitled F*ck M*ss S**gon Play, whose author, American writer Kimber Lee, told a radio interviewer that the multiple asterisks were a safety net: “I don’t know if Cameron Mackintosh is going to come for me. It was a working title that stuck; it makes people’s eyes pop open.” But it was certainly a visit to see the musical on Broadway that prompted this work, the first international winner of the Bruntwood prize, the UK’s biggest competition for playwriting.
What struck Kimber Lee was the stereotypical portrayal of the Asian female character, Kim, the bar girl based on Madame Butterfly herself in Schönberg and Boublil’s Vietnam-war era adaptation from Puccini. Kim ultimately kills herself to force Clark, an American GI stationed in Saigon in 1975 with whom she had a brief affair, to take their son back to America with him. It’s a cultural problem, says Lee, a symptom of the way that Asian women are seen.
And so, in the opening scenes of Lee’s powerful response, Kim (Mei Mac) is portrayed as a delicate butterfly of a girl, innocent and clean, but also dirty, in a kimono with flowers in her hair. Clark (Tom Weston-Jones) is portrayed as rugged and manly, he’s also American, tall and handsome, and works out with cardio and high-intensive interval training.
We learn this from the velvet-voiced narrator, Rochelle Rose, who is somehow managing to maintain composure and a straight face amid the helpless laughter.
The lingo of Haribo
Kim and her mother Rosie (Lourdes Faberes) speak American-English, while Clark uses what we assume at first to be a cod-Sino-Japanese language, but is actually a series of random ‘foreign-sounding’ words: Dojo, Kimchi, Haribo. Another merciless attack on stereotyping.
The sequence is manic, almost Pythonesque in its brand of satire, while the handing over of the “bui doi” child – a grotesquely-lifelike rag doll – to Clark’s glamorous and polished wife Evelyn (Jennifer Kirby) is pure farce.
Then the Madame Butterfly motif is repeated, the sample scene now re-created from The King and I, South Pacific and of course Miss Saigon itself, and while it’s less funny on the second and subsequent iterations, the dramatic point could not be made more clearly. Clark is still a hunk, Evelyn is still fragrant and manicured, Kim is still a butterfly, and the action is only updated when she shoots herself, rather than using a knife, and Rosie is replaced with the feckless fiancé, Goro (Jeff D’Sangalang) and his subsequent ghostly appearance.
Miss Saigon gets angry
The narrative crashes and flashes towards the 21st Century by way of Suzie Wong; yes, here’s the cultural stereotype again, fostered by actor William Holden in the eponymous film.
It’s here, in the set changes, that the Royal Exchange stage, and the talented backstage team, add so much of value to the dramatic action, bamboo curtains and futons giving way most creatively to a modern sofa and dining table, as the tempo changes violently. It’s here that Kimber Lee’s anger comes out of the shadows and onto centre stage, as “Kim” rips apart niceties and conventions during a family celebration dinner party. This is the stellar point of a magnificent performance from Olivier-award nominee Mei Mac, manic and disturbing, dynamic in tone and movement.
There’s a rather sudden and abrupt redemption, accompanied by the haunting exit song Ooh Child, Things Are Gonna Get Easier, but we’re still going out with a bang, not a whimper. This is a truly explosive start to the Manchester International Festival.
Directed by Roy Alexander Weise. A Royal Exchange Theatre, Factory International for Manchester International Festival, Young Vic Theatre and Headlong co-production. Runs at the Royal Exchange till 22 July, before transferring to the Young Vic Theatre in London (18 September – 4 November)
CLICK HERE TO SUPPORT THE BYLINES NETWORK CROWDFUNDER!