FringeReview UK 2019
Nana Dakin’s production features Moi Tran’s dazzle and gleam of a set. It’s hollowed with brittle neon by Natasha Chivers, with Ian William Galloway’s video design in two layers, with sound and composition by Nicola Craig. Till June 15th.
A racist joke around a beauty product goes oddly viral. The product’s company Clearday is in sudden freefall. Who’s to blame? Who’s to get fired? There has to be a scapegoat. And there’s another surprise lurking. Whilst Caryl Churchill’s 1982 Top Girls enjoys a revival at the National, a devastatingly smart update embracing westernized and homeland Asian women in a beauty company opens at the Royal Court.
If Anchuli Felicia King’s White Pearl echoes the workplace of Penelope Skinner’s 2015 Linda – where an older woman executive for beauty cream becomes invisible – the blame’s more intriguing here, the protagonists more numerous and complex, the outcome gripping.
There is a man cankering the heart of things in White Pearl too, but he’s a pathological opportunist and neither the originator, nor the real agent. King, a Thai-Australian manages in 85 minutes to portray an excoriating network of inter-racial prejudices, abuse and unexpected bonding across impossible chasms. But you have to keep up.
At the core of Nana Dakin’s production is the way humanity’s been airbrushed out of its own picture, and here it’s women by women. Moi Tran’s dazzle and gleam of a set seems not to let anyone touch its sides, though that illusion literally shatters. It’s a two-tiered construction with reveals like two bathrooms on top of each other, and a vertical strip that gets projected onto, allowing a cloud of figures to settle the latest index in minty neon. There’s glass doors that will eventually surprise.
This all looks like a clinical display: a kind of blown-up beauty products box. Pale greens and other contrasts remove the organic. Only when a table with laptops and chairs arrives, and one sudden lurch a year into the past does the set look human: that’s a poignant touch that seems to pay homage to Top Girls. It’s where everyone suddenly looks and dresses in organically-coloured oatmeal, and relaxed mode: only then does any human stain touch the sides. It’s what could have been, but it’s become this.
The effect’s all hollowed with brittle neon by Natasha Chivers, with Ian William Galloway’s video design in two layers (there’s a screen too), with sound and composition by Nicola Craig.
There’s six women: clearly three behave as Alphas with the others treated as subordinates. CEO Farzana Dua Elahe is Priya the LSE-educated Indian Singaporean from Mumbai who seems at first the sassiest when she alerts the Chinese Singaporean Sunny who gets it – Katie Leung’s buttoning in ‘bro’ speak ; and Kae Alexander’s Thai-American California girl Built, rich with a sassy sense of her own survival.
She’s the one seeking to escape a now stalker-relationship with Arty Froushan’s Marcel Benoit, a French photographer skilled at dissemination, via YouTube and dark arts. Built suspects something, and Alexander superbly crumbles from her commanding self through abject humiliation to command again. Froushan neatly encapsulates Benoit’s sociopathic charm then something else. The scene shocks because the male dynamic is so disruptive and its worth silently cheering when it’s over, though at a choking cost to Built.
With varying degrees of uptake they form a striking contrast with the three who think it no big deal, understand racism differently. Minhee Yeo as the South Korean chemist Soo-Jin is also the canniest here, butt of Priya’s rather strange assumption that she’s from North Korea, cruelly unwilling to appreciate the difference. Throughout Elahe cleverly leaks sympathy away from Priya: from sassiest and quickest to a tyrant who can’t understand her workforce. For most of the play Priya uses her English – their universal communicating language – as a weaponized colonizing overseer. Yeo though plays geeky low status till a thrilling turnaround and a crystal command unsuspected till now.
Chemist Soo-Jin though has a secret of her own about the product involving the exact status of chemical whitener. She also knows the art of war and undertakes to protect the hapless perpetrator or original disseminator of the joke, Momo Yeung’s Xiao. Xiao’s Chinese with a troubled past and terror of returning to her country for good reason. Yeung’s is a performance of extremes, including uncontrollable crying and laughter, one of the great reveals emotionally.
There’s also adroit skewering of fraught topics: what black means in Asia, and western colonialism’s last outpost, pc language.
What King manages so well is to nuance the cultural differences between westernized notions of correctness and what homeland Asians might find funny. Xiao’s the least sophisticated, one might say the least exposed. She’s surprised first Soo-Jin will help her and doesn’t understand at first the sympathy from Kanako Nakao’s Japanese Ruki – unfolding a clear-headed sensibility and ultimately warmth. Xiao assumes Ruki must hate her because their countries are still enemies. Their touching rapprochement is beyond the satiric arc of this play and genuinely moving, if brief. You sense that if anything, these three might make a better working world somewhere else. It was Ruki after all who came up with the company names, yet a year on is treated like a servant.
There’s a further couple of twists and the end’s delicious. A joke that everybody but one can get, a kind of inversion of the opening: it’s beautifully structured. The other final twist though just preceding this seems contrived – if only that its roots seem laid a year ago and two others tipped off. But the use of this gambit, then a further reveal, couldn’t have been predicted then. No matter. The play’s otherwise flawless and all cast members are uniformly excellent. It’s the finest new play from the Court this year, gleaming and deadly.