Spinning together the lives of four expats living in Beijing, Lost Laowais explores some of the intricacies of what it means to try to make somewhere home, and if that generally organic process is something that can, or should, be artificially reproduced. In my opinion, there are some points during this piece which feel like a series of back to back conversations, each of which telling us something which is far from irrelevant, but not necessarily highly engaging. There are definitely challenges related to the external lives of the characters. We’re told that they have jobs, and yet none of them ever seem to go to them: the span of time which the play covers means that the real world is clearly a contributing factor, but it never seems to particularly get in the way.
A couple of things take me slightly by surprise during this play. The first is the writer’s ability to self critique, or at least to critique the group of which he has been a part. Lost Laowais is in part inspired by his own move to Beijing at the age of nineteen, and a subsequent interest in the integration of expat communities, or lack thereof. While remaining forgiving of its characters’ decisions, the play is far from non-critical regarding the implications of choosing to move from Britain to China in the early 21st century.
Secondly, I am actually surprised by its pessimism. The end of the play seems to suggest that, for one reason or another, no member of this particular group could find any kind of meaningful home in Beijing. Given how diabolically powerful borders have become on the word stage, one may assume that theatre would take a more optimistic approach or suggest ways in which we can move past the current state of affairs. By contrast, this play seems content to present what it perceives to be a harsh reality.
Given the dialogue-heavy nature of the script, the staging feels a little overbearing. The frequency of the blackouts and extensive furniture rearranging doesn’t lend itself particularly well to the efforts to keep up a pace, and the variations between the staging of different Skype calls feels more confusing than it is worth.
The topics of this play are extremely interesting and delicate. It brings together contemporary issues of economies and immigration with ones that we have collectively inherited, such as colonialism and race-related issues. Therefore, while the play itself doesn’t always feel particularly urgent, its content is well worth the time.
Lost Laowais is playing the VAULTS Festival until 9 February. For more information and tickets, visit the VAULT Festival website.