It is not the usual state of affairs that, upon a trip to the theatre, you find yourself tucking into succulent chilli pork dumplings and crispy garlic infused sweetcorn, or drinking sweet Chinese plum wine. But then Wun’s Tea Room is not usually a theatre: it is actually a Chinese restaurant, only hosting Joel Tan’s play Overheard as part of the 2020 Chinese Arts Now Festival in London. Directed by up and coming British Asian director Mingyu Lin, the immersive concept is fresh, exciting – and delicious. But the play itself suffers through a weak script and some rather shaky acting.
Overheard explores different experiences of the Chinese diaspora through two separate stories. The first is about the relationship between a Singaporean-English woman and her Chinese business client. It takes in commentary on Asian obsessiveness about good food, jokes about the pronunciation of Cantonese tones, and intra-Asian snobbery and prejudice. But the script is weak: a-little-too-obvious satirical comments on millennials ‘doing dry January to June’ litter the dialogue, while brash discussion about ‘chilli shits’ or vaguely offensive comments between the two characters, perhaps there with the intention of making their interactions feeling idiomatic and real, instead jar with the developing story.
The second scenario is stronger, exploring the tensions between artististic freedom and corporatisation of the art scene, in which individuals made rich by repressive regimes feel able to restrain radical art to purely aesthetic meaning. But the two characters, one a canny businesswoman and the other a naive artist, lack nuance, verging into caricature. Both stories are further held back by painfully wooden acting, with the character-shifting cast also failing to consistently shift their accents between public school, cockney or native Chinese – often ending up in some hybrid of all three.
Wun’s Tea Room is a gloomy, speakeasy-style basement joint with muted lighting cut across by bright neon green Chinese characters, bare brick walls with tastefully arranged traditional art, and colonial-style bamboo chairs that the audience can happily sink into. But Overheard fails to make full use of this great setting. Perhaps out of a commercial need to have as much audience as possible, all the action and all the dialogue take place at one table, slightly undermining the concept that we are overhearing random snippets of conversation at a restaurant.
What would have been great would have been a situation where the plot builds gradually through overhearing waiters’ chitchat or different customers at different tables talking intermittently around a subject, to organically develop a narrative through characters’ seemingly random interactions. Instead, the script is for two totally independent narratives contrivedly presented one after the other on the same central table, which audience members have to strain to watch if their seat happens to be to the back of the action.
Nevertheless, Overheard’s ambition is laudable and its place on the stage is important. Supported by Arts Council England, the play represents stories predominantly about China, but also about Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand – stories that may not be permitted to be told in the more repressive regimes from which they originate. The production is at its best when it offers some profound commentary on the the difficulties of staying true to a political cause when a regime seems unbreachable – sometimes with a level of ambiguity that just about hints at revolutionary possibility. But this is a glimmer of light in a production that is otherwise lost in the tearoom gloom.
Overheard is playing at Wun’s Tea Room until 23 February. For more information and tickets, see the Chinese Arts Now website.