It seems both incredibly ambitious and perhaps a little foolhardy of Soho Theatre to stage a piece of promenade theatre when the surrounding streets are at their busiest, packed with after-work drinkers, but thats what theyve done.
Inspired by the Chinese Moon Festival, the theatres new show takes its audience through the bustling streets of Chinatown, into alleys and courtyards, past shops and restaurants. We begin by gathering in the theatres upstairs studio, where a mah jong game is in progress. We are each handed a coloured tile and then a quartet of girls holding paper lanterns lead us down into Dean Street and off in separate directions.
I dont want to give away too much about the story, as the main joy of the production is the way it surprises you with each scene, the way youre never sure what is actually a planned part of the show. Tourists and people out on the town for the evening gaze at our procession with curiosity, some calling out and jeering, others tagging eagerly along to see whats going on. In a way the audience becomes part of the show, and a sense of the theatrical bleeds into the noisy, throbbing streets.
Which is fortunate because the script itself, by Justin Young, is a disappointingly soapy thing primarily concerned with a young Chinese womans worries about introducing her white boyfriend to her traditional family. The acting is also very broad, in turns too loud and overplayed, while at the same time often not loud enough to be heard properly over the surrounding urban buzz.
Given the unpredictable nature of the piece, subtlety was never going to be easy to achieve but some of the performers handle things far better than others. The production feels incredibly bitty and theres far too much traipsing about between scenes, though again a lot of this seems inevitable given the constraints of staging things in this manner.
Its really only in the final scene, when we gather in a residential courtyard Id never have guessed was there before tonight and see the various characters come together that the piece really clicks. Chinatown is a fascinating area but the play doesnt really say much about its history or what it means to be young and British Chinese above the very obvious.
Though it has charm and succeeded in making me look at familiar streets in a new light, it felt like something of a missed opportunity.
Still there was a lot of fun to be had, being ushered into unexpected alleyways and causing a commotion in the middle of Gerrard Street. Just make sure you eat before the show, as being guided past restaurant vents and assailed by exciting aromas became increasingly torturous as the performance went on. Indeed, by the end, I was far less concerned with what a mooncake symbolised, than with my desire to find out what they tasted like.