MOUNTAINS: The Dreams of Lily Kwok
Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 31st May, 2018
When Helen leaves her native Manchester to work as a lawyer in Hong Kong, she feels out of place, a fraud, an English girl in a Chinese body. She encounters the spirit of her grandmother, but as she was when she was younger. Grandmother Lily is entreated to tell her life story and to pull no punches, with Helen taking on the role of Lily while Lily narrates. Storylines from the past and the present entwine, with Helen and Lily often at odds. Put this way, it may seem confusing but in practice, it isn’t. Director Jennifer Tang maintains clear focus throughout so we’re never wondering who is whom and when is when.
Siu-See Hung is delightful as Helen, with her plain-speaking Mancunian humorously undercutting some of the more melodramatic aspects of Lily’s story. Tina Chiang makes a formidable Lily, but there is warmth behind the austere looks and the anger. Matthew Leonheart gives a powerful performance as the dashing Kwok Chan brought low by his addictions, while Ruth Gibson’s Mrs Woodman develops from colonial racism to genuine warmth for her hard-put-upon maid, Lily. Rina Takasaki brings glossy glamour as cabaret singer Gong, and Minhee Yeo gives a sensitive portrayal of Mrs Lee, a woman desperate for a child. Completing the cast, Andy Kettu has contrasting roles as Helen’s hopeless date and a terrifying Japanese soldier.
In-Sook Chappell’s adaptation of Helen Tse’s novel, Sweet Mandarin, depicts the rich tapestry of Lily’s life, the highs and the many lows, the rough with the smooth, the sweet with the sour. It’s an epic saga, covering decades of Chinese history, including some harrowing war-time scenes. Tang includes many effective ideas to get the story across, like a silk jacket becoming a puppet to represent Lily on her 12th birthday. With Ruth Chan’s original, ethereal compositions, the show has a traditional feel while being bang up-to-date and fresh, as Helen learns of her heritage and finds her place in the modern world.
Funny, touching, endearing and heartrending, there’s a lot packed into the running time and it’s all performed with style and skill by a captivating ensemble. I savoured every flavourful moment.