It’s Friday evening and Soho’s streets are filled with after-work drinkers and pavement tables and the general jabber of people released from their desks for the weekend. And I am off to the theatre. To Soho Theatre in fact, up the stairs to their studio space where a mah jong game is in session and tinny music plays on a radio in the corner. Someone hands me a coloured tile (a red one) and, before I or the other assembled audience members have time to fully orientate ourselves, we are waved and prodded back out of the door, following a girl with a paper lantern back downstairs and out into Dean Street.
If anything it’s noisier outside than before but our attention is drawn to one particularly shouty couple, having an argument outside a restaurant, a Chinese woman and her boyfriend. She has a family party to attend and is worried about bringing him along, as she’s neglected to tell her family that he’s not Chinese. I don’t want to give away too much about the story, both because the narrative was rather on the thin side and because the uncertainty factor is one of the key joys of this production – it constantly surprises you and you’re never quite sure what was a planned part of the show and what was just random Friday night Soho stuff.
Naturally our small procession began attracting attention and soon we had tourists and people out on the town watching us with some curiosity. Some were moved to call out questions, some began tagging along to find out what was going on, and as a result I started to feel as much part of the show as the performers. Which was a rather fun feeling. The production took us all around Chinatown, past shops and restaurants, via the pagoda, and then off down alleys full of kitchen smells and cardboard boxes, before returning to Soho proper and ending up in a hidden residential courtyard where the disparate plot strands came together over a moon festival feast (and with a bit of rudimentary shadow puppetry thrown in to boot).
It was an exhilarating experience that succeeded in making me look anew at familiar streets, streets I walk through nearly everyday without really looking at them, always going somewhere, never fully awake to what’s around me. And yet, and yet, though I’m loathe to criticize what was such an enjoyable theatrical experience, in many ways it felt like something of a missed opportunity. Justin Young’s script felt disappointingly soapy, the acting was very broad and basic and the play doesn’t really say much about the history of the neighbourhood or what it means to be young and British Chinese above the very obvious. I wonder if my expectations were simply too high, because as I said I did enjoy it, and I’m probably not fully grasping the logistical complexity of staging something like this, I just thought it could have been more than it was.
It’s still an experience worth having though, and I’d love to see similar projects put on by other theatres, the Bush and the Arcola springing most immediately to mind.