Thursday, August 24, 2023

MISS PEONY - Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse

Shirong Li (Joy) - Deborah Faye Lee  (Marcy) - Jeffrey Liu (Zhen Hua) - Stephanie Jack (Lily)
 Mabel Li (Sabrina)

Written by Michelle Law – Directed by Courtney Stewart

Set and Costumes designed by Jonathan Hindmarsh – Lighting Designed by Trent Suidgeest

Composer: Dr Nicholas Ng – Sound Design by Julian Starr - Choreographed by Kristina Chan

Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse August 23rd – 26th 2023.

Performance on August 23rd reviewed by Bill Stephens.

Shirong Li (nurse) - Gabrielle Chan (Adeline) - Stephanie Jack (Lily)

Michelle Law’s latest play is a disarming affair. Given a terrific production by Belvoir Theatre and directed with flair by Courtney Stewart, the play vacillates unsettlingly between broad parody and moments of thoughtful comment about fitting into the country in which you were born but are considered alien.

The audience first meet Lily, played by Stephanie Jack, at the deathbed of her grandmother, Adeline (‘Poh Poh’ in their native Cantonese). A former beauty queen herself, Poh Poh (Gabrielle Chan) makes Lily promise that she will carry on her legacy by entering and winning the forthcoming Chinese community beauty pageant, Miss Peony.

Although she is about to set off to London to establish a new life, and loathes the idea of participating in a beauty pageant, Lily reluctantly agrees allowing Poh Poh to happily expire.  But, not for long, because Poh Poh soon reappears as a ghost who, unless Lily achieves her promise, is destined to linger in Limbo and determined to prevent that outcome.

Deborah Faye Lee (Marcy) - Shirong Wu (Joy) - Stephanie Jack (Lily) - Mabel Li (Sabrina) 

The rest of the play is taken up with the actual beauty pageant, during which Lily becomes life-long friends with three of her adversaries, Marcy, Sabrina and Joy. Each of whom is depicted as a broadly-performed cultural stereotype.

During the Q & A that is part of the beauty pageant, we learn that Marcy (Deborah Faye Lee) hopes to advance the success of her family’s business by winning the pageant; Joy (Shirong Wu) is looking for a romantic partner; and Sabrina (Mabel Li) is intent on portraying herself as a typical Western-Sydney ethno-Australian.

Despite the apparent shallowness of each of the contestants the actors manage to invest them with a sense of authenticity, so that during the exuberant staging of the lavish beauty pageant with its appropriately cheesy K-pop soundtrack, it is easy to become invested in the outcome for each. That outcome itself is one of many surprises imbedded in this production.

Among others are the endlessly surprising set and witty costumes by Jonathan Hindmarsh which capture the glamour and gaudiness of these events; Kristina Chan’s spot-on choreography; and the scene- stealing performance of Jeffrey Liu as Zhen Hua, the smooth, silver-tongued compere and producer of the beauty pageant.


Gabrielle Chan (Adeline) - Stephanie Jack (Lily)

But it is the performance of Gabrielle Chan, as the irascible Poh Poh, which anchors the fantasy that is central to the success of the production.

Able to switch from matriarch to witch in a flash, Chan has an elegance which makes her completely believable as a former beauty queen, and an inherent grace which allows her maintain an unworldly presence as a formidable ghost. She also wears a remarkable costume which delivers surprises of its own.  

However, perhaps the most intriguing feature of this production is how well the device works of having the dialogue delivered and captioned in three languages, Mandarin, Cantonese and English.  This provides the production with an unusual authenticity which somehow defuses criticism of the broad acting style, which, despite of the contemporary subject of the play, often hints at traditional Chinese theatre.

With “Miss Peony” Michelle Law and her director Courtney Stewart have crafted a clever production which besides being thought-provoking is also terrifically entertaining. 

                                                     Images by Jason Lau

     This review also published in AUSTRALIAN ARTS REVIEW.