Friday, August 25, 2023

Miss Peony

Image: Dan Boud
 Miss Peony by Michelle Law.  Belvoir St Theatre (Sydney) at Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse, August 23-26, 2023.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
August 24


Writer - Michelle Law; Director - Courtney Stewart; Set & Costume - Jonathan Hindmarsh

Asst Set & Costume - Keerthi Subramanyam; Lighting Designer - Trent Suidgeest

Composer - Dr Nicholas Ng; Sound Designer - Julian Starr; Assoc. Des. Sound - Zac Saric

Choreographer - Kristina Chan; Singing Teacher - Sheena Crouch

Vocal Coaches - Laura Farrell, Amy Hume

Fight & Intimacy Director - Nigel Poulton

Gabrielle Chan 陳金燕 Adeline; Deborah Faye Lee 李淑菲 Marcy; Stephanie Jack 盧恩典 Lily

Mabel Li 李美宝 Sabrina; Shirong Wu 吴士容 Joy; Jeffrey Liu (JËVA) Zhen Hua


If you imagine that serious satire must be sharp and essentially cold-hearted, you will be surprised – pleasantly – by this warm-hearted satire of Chinese-Australian culture about the Miss Peony Competition, modelled on Miss Australia, Miss World and even Miss Universe competitions, which began in this country “from humble beginnings” as the Miss Australia Quest, as a charity fundraiser – according to the National Museum of Australia – in  1907.

China Global Television Network tells us [  ] in “Peony wins national flower vote”, how “The peony originated in China, and has been planted since 4,000 years ago. It was considered a symbol of the country during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907), and was the favorite flower of the people at that time. In Chinese culture, the peony represents prosperity, elegance, solemnity, and is nicknamed the ‘monarch of the flowers’”.

These are the very qualities in this very Australian-Chinese comedy which are ripe for satire. Yet the story behind the writing is one of warmth and respect for ancestors, specifically dedicated by Michelle Law to her Ma Ma, Law Wong Ching Lan.  An Australian Born Chinese (ABC), in her Writer’s Note, Michelle describes her visit to Hong Kong, aged 11, where she watched the Miss Hong Kong Pageant on tv.

“It was incredible witnessing so many women who looked like me being celebrated for their appearance and connection to culture when I’d learnt to dislike these things about myself and assimilate in order to survive living in a western country.

“One contestant stood out for me: a woman struggling to answer interview questions in Cantonese before ultimately giving up and speaking in English.  She had an Australian accent.  I remember sitting straighter on the couch as I watched her.  She sounded like an ABC and a banana, just like me – yellow on the outside, white on the inside.  She gave me hope that maybe there was finally a place where I belonged.  And then she was eliminated from the Pageant.”

And so began the story of Lily’s grandmother, having felt the “unique sense of displacement experienced by diasporic peoples” on coming to Australia, becoming famous two generations later for having won the Miss Peony Pageant which was still funded by a sexual predator businessman, Lam.

Being young Australian women today, accepting such behaviour is not on for Marcy, Sabrina, Joy and Lily as it was necessary in her grandmother’s day, perhaps to win – as they discover from Adeline.  Though she has died, Adeline’s ghost cannot rest until Lily has played her part in the Miss Peony Pageant with integrity and honesty.

And, being Australian in today’s social media world, the show becomes like an extreme Youtube influencer event with fantastic dancing, speaking (translated into the three languages Cantonese, Mandarin and Aussie English surtitled on a screen above the action) and (sometimes almost literally) stunning technical effects in sound and light.  LaughOutLoud is the mood, with individual moments clapped and cheered throughout the show, especially by the many young women in the audience.

But it was not only about sexist men and patriarchy.  Zhen Hua, the Pageant MC, comes to understand himself as Lily gives the most powerful speech in the Pageant, and true romance begins as the show ends.  La commedia è finita on a note of respect.

You have only one more day to see Miss Peony in Canberra, but you can catch it at Merrigong Theatre Company: 30 Aug – 2 Sep 2023; and Geelong Arts Centre: 6 – 9 Sep 2023.