Edinburgh Fringe 2013
What would you risk to make your mark on the world? A girl moves to London to write her first play, a fantastical coming of age story about adventure-seeking Mei Li who enters the magical Chinese Metaforest. There, Mei meets an orange hippo and together they must battle a ferocious monster guarding a treasure that could change everything. Reality and dreamworlds collide with memory and culture as this girl in-between creates her story – and life. Peer into the gaping unknown as Mei confronts the wonderful darkness and awesome splendour of a big, big world.
“Ogres” someone green once said “are like onions…they have layers.” Something There That’s Missing has layers aplenty. A young playwright, Joy, living in London is constantly nagged by her fretful mother, from across the miles, via Skype. An artist, recovering from major surgery, similarly struggles to overcome the self doubt which prevents her from sending her script, her baby, to be tested in the cruel world beyond her nurture. There’s a play within a play, a darling lullaby. The story of a fantastical quest by a small girl, Mei Li, through a dream world in company with a stayed, fearful orange hippo confined by limits he’s never dared to test.
What makes Anh Chu’s semi-autobiographical script standout is the seamless interplay between these layers. Together with her co-stars, Julie Cheung-Inhin and Siu-See Hung she is able to present complex and compelling narratives with a grace, charm and humour that is profound as well as deeply moving. On leaving there’s a bittersweet aftertaste of unthinking happiness in the heart. The ebb and flow of the drama is unconstricted by the tight limits of one of the grungier venues this Fringe. Seat choice for view’s sake is paramount. My decision to sit behind someone with an afro is to be lamented.
The only awkward moment allowed on stage is at the very start as the actors navigate the obstacle course from the entrance via the legs, feet and baggage protruding from the front row. Fluid movement routines sparkle through the hour. The expanded arms of Mei Li as she swims through the Pink River nullify completely the tininess of the venue. A clever bit of trickery with sheets to the side depicting the forest scenes also works surprising wonders to delineate dream and reality. So too does the contrast between Cheung-Inhin and Hung’s red silk costumes and Chu’s greyer outfits.
Cheung-Inhin animates Mr. Po so magically that I am genuinely outraged when he is flung across the room. Chu’s representation of Joy is (as you would expect with a semi-autobiographical character) authentic and polished. Hung gets to show off the most range as both the wide-eyed Mei Li and also as the nagging matriarch. The former is sweetness and light, the later strikes each cord so exactly that knowing laughs titter around the space in all the right places. It is in this guise that Hung appears as a video file on a fruit-themed company’s laptop sitting on Joy’s desk as well as on a larger screen behind. The process of turning the iProp round for the audience to see each incoming call starts to get clumsy amid the wires and paraphernalia of a writer’s desk. There’s a reason the big board with buttons and dials attached to the lights, sound and AV is usually kept out of sight even in trendy productions. It interrupts Chu’s otherwise perfectly sculpted portrait of the artist as a self-doubting procrastinator.
This is a show with a universal appeal. The giant panda puppet head has successfully drawn in both children and the more childlike sort of reviewer. I am sitting near a two child family. The older boy is much too grown up and sophisticated for the bubbly puppetry and funny mummy routines and sits in an attentively sullen silence. The younger girl and I love every minute of it all. Squirming with delight whenever Mr. Po makes an entrance.
This show is smart enough for parents, fun enough for kids and so very good to share. A real treat.