Months of research and workshops run by writer Justin Young and director Suzanne Gorman have created Moonwalking In Chinatown, an extraordinary walkabout performance which leads audiences through Chinatown in the dusk behind bobbing paper lanterns and a variety of actors and stewards. Four overlapping stories for four simultaneous groups, each led by a different coloured lantern, have to weave through the early evening Soho crowds. The range of characters and multiple storylines and also the geographical area walked through all literally keep audiences on their toes. Owing a lot to careful co-ordination by the production team, the groups collide and characters from one story cross paths with characters from another.
A grandmother plots to rebel against indifference for the Autumn Moon festival and gathers her family for an impromptu celebration. Her youngest granddaughter is tired of Chinatown clichés and longs to be a different cliché, a fading popstar in China. Her panicking friends follow her as she prepares to leave town with a suitcase and dodgy passport. Her older sister asks a singing waiter to pose as her boyfriend in lieu of her real ‘gwei lo’ boyfriend. The ‘gwei lo’ gets embroiled in a drug deal, a passport con and multiple misunderstandings as he makes his way around Soho. A young mother hunts for her daughter’s lost rabbit. Singing waiter's boss doesn’t understand musical theatre and is desperate to cover his losses as one after another, his evening's bookings cancel.
The criss-crossing of stories and characters and unfolding connections transforms Chinatown from a collection of fairly uniform Chinese restaurants and some shops into a sprawling, rich network of drama, personalities and histories. Alleyways, sidestreets, the busiest thoroughfares and finally, a residential courtyard all become the backdrop to a complicated, multi-cultural, multi-generational, broadly populated soap opera.
All aspects of British-Chinese culture are explored; actors, audience, characters, opinions and experiences clash, collide, walk side by side or miss each other entirely. Stereotypes are exploited then exploded and the sheer range of characters expose just how limited representation of British-Chinese culture is in mainstream media. Though the script feels rather sentimental at times, especially in the rather too neat conclusion, mawkishness is avoided just by the fact real experience is represented and there is much more to Chinatown and British-Chinese culture than the default waiter / takeaway owner / gangster underworld characters.
It’s enough to make one’s head spin and the evening is exciting, involving; passers-by openly stare and try to tag along. Anyone and everything is part of the performance – the chefs lounging in doorways, taking a break before the dinner rush, young men and women in trendy cliques picking up Chinese language magazines and CDs, elderly couples pottering about in the dusk mingling with young families shopping for groceries. Tourists and workers, shoppers and actors blur into one unfolding drama and it is hard to believe it has ended when the actors take their bow. Walking back into Soho and Chinatown afterwards, the story seems to continue in every alleyway, in every street. A unique pleasure for those who have always wondered what lies beyond the menus and main streets of Chinatown.
Moonwalking In Chinatown, a walkabout performance starting at Soho Theatre, until Saturday 29 September. For more information and to book tickets, go to the Soho Theatre website here.