Sharp lines and strong characterisation in this drama set in an East London family home…
PLAYWRIGHT Joanne Lau offers insights into a British Chinese family in a new play, called ‘Worth’, currently playing at the Arcola Theatre in East London (See below for listing details).
Four siblings gather at the family home for the first time in ages, following their mother’s demise.
The four are very different characters in temperament and life situations – all are settled and seemingly, outwardly, on a reasonable life path – in the present, that is.
The comedy and the beauty of this play comes from pitting these four against each other – any urge to unify or coalesce around some common ‘family values’ is disrupted and made very difficult.
Lau perhaps focuses too much on the material aspect as being the element that both brings the siblings together and splits them horribly apart – though of course, it isn’t strange for siblings to argue about inheritance.
There are revelations and secrets only some of the siblings know about and these will be exposed during the family tumult and come later into the 110 minutes duration of this play.
When they first gather, they discover their family home is about to be repossessed and ‘Ammarh’ (their mother) has only £44 left in the bank.
The four spend more time pondering this fact, than grieving or reminiscing and it becomes apparent she has left cash in the house and this sets off a frantic search for it.
Jacob (Arthur Lee), is the oldest and the one who carries his Chinese culture mostly deeply on his sleeve but a spell inside and five marriages, including one that turned violent, marks him out as a menace and a man prone to violence and force in getting what he wants.
May (Sara Chia-Jewell) is the youngest and by some margin to Ted, the next of her siblings. A New Age Christian type figure, she is settled in America, has two children and distances herself from Chinese culture.
Dentist Ted (Stephen Hoo) appears initially, as the most successful, with a wife and practice that make his keenness to recover any leftover cash, slightly odd.
Penny (Jennifer Lim) is the oldest daughter, divorced and single mum to Anthony (Leo Buckley), she appears on the surface, at least, the most resolved and level-headed of the four, and remembers her mother more fondly until… more secrets tumble forth.
Anthony is the surly teenager and doesn’t much respect his uncles or aunt.
Yes, they all have ‘issooes’ – but these mostly surface in a second half which has a different tone to the first.
Directed by Mingyu Lin, this is a bright, breezy, well-written, social comedy (in the first half) that crackles with the tension of four people who probably wouldn’t want to spend a whole heap of time together but the forthcoming funeral event forces them to do so. Increasingly, the play gets darker in tone, old scores are settled and one wonders whether their mother was a likeable on any level.
The performances are generally solid and the set by Moi Tran simple and effective, with all the dramatic action taking place in the small sitting room of the home.
The first half zips through and establishes the characters – Jacob, cocky and still proud, Penny, sad but conciliatory, Ted, fragile and sensitive, while May just wants to escape as soon as she can. It might have been helpful to have a more neutral foil, but Anthony’s general antipathy makes it hard to be sympathetic.
Lau has packed a lot in, and is a talented writer – and to see a diverse cast like this in an ensemble British-set work has its own power.
Perhaps, we don’t get enough of the world outside the Yeungs’ house and what growing up as an ethnic minority in that part of London was like but there is much else to recommend ‘Worth’, not least the humour up front, with the four trying to establish their own rules of engagement.
ACV rating: *** (out of five)
Main caption: Jacob (Lee), Ted (Hoo), Penny (Lim) and May (Chia-Jewell) All pictures: Ikin Yum
‘Worth’ by Joanne Lau, (April 7) – April 29, mostly 7.30pm/2.30pm (Saturday matinee – check daily listing times), Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, London E8 3DL
More Info/tickets: https://www.arcolatheatre.com/whats-on/worth/
Tel: 020 7503 1646