With a promise of adventure and hope not too far behind the obstacles sure to thwart our hero’s quest, this story begins like every treasured bedtime story and ends with you wide awake, wanting more. Adapted by award-winning playwright In-Sook Chappell, ‘Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok’* is an electrifying exploration of the lives of the women behind the famous restaurant Sweet Mandarin here in Manchester. Premiering at the Royal Exchange Theatre (22 Mar - 7 Apr 2018), this heartwarming production which was co-produced by Black Theatre Live, Yellow Earth Theatre and the Royal Exchange Theatre is one you won’t regret seeing.
Spanning 1920’s rural Guangzhou, 1930’s colonial Hong Kong and present day UK, ‘Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok’, is based on Helen Tse’s bestselling memoir ‘Sweet Mandarin’ - a story about the strong and ambitious women in her life, especially her grandmother, Lily Leung. And it is both Lily and Helen who act as our guides in this entrancing play about a young diasporan’s journey to uncover her family’s past in search of her true self.
Arriving in Hong Kong as a successful lawyer, Helen tentatively tries to assimilate the essence of the country where her family came from, where she is from. And it is on one of its busy streets that we bump into Lily and are brought up to speed on most of her family’s history which is marked by poverty, a patriarchal society, murder, triad associations, addictions and the downsides to being an immigrant. To say I was shocked at the things Lily went through as she clung onto the moral of the story her father, Leung, often told her would be an understatement; however, it was not all doom and gloom. If there was one thing that brought Lily hope for the future, it was good food. And judging by the aromas that filled the theatre and the effect it had on the audience, it is not hard to imagine why.
Tina Chiang (Labour of Love, Michael Grandage Company) and Siu-See Hung (O Deptford, Albany Theatre) portrayed their characters, Lily and Helen, with such feistiness, compassion and vulnerability that seeing their resemblance was effortless. And playing multiple characters, each integral to the unfolding of this moving tale, are Ruth Gibson (Blackout, Harlow Playhouse), Andy Kettu (Romeo & Juliet, Citizens Theatre) Matthew Leonhart (Project New Earth, China Arts Space), Rina Takasaki (Avenue Q, UK Tour) and Minhee Yeo (Just One More Time, The Space, One Festival). It was a truly humbling experience to be given a glimpse of the incredibly testing journey of this East Asian woman with unwavering determination to create a good life for her family despite the horrors she had endured.
This wonderful production was directed beautifully by Jennifer Tang. The affecting sound and lighting design by Elena Peña and Amy Mae coupled with Amelia Jane Hankin’s simple but effective set and costume designs and Ruth Chan’s haunting scores made it very easy to navigate all the play’s varying timelines and locations. And the fascinating transitions choreographed by Lucy Cullingford made watching the set transform swiftly into a snazzy bar with a view, the docks where Helen met Chan and Lily’s family home all the more enjoyable.
If you would like a not-so-subtle kick up the rear whilst learning about the hard, yet colourful life of a certain strong-willed Chinese immigrant and her family, then go see ‘Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok’ at the Royal Exchange Theatre by 7th April 2018. You may even find some fuel for the road on your way out...
*I was invited to review this theatre performance at the Royal Exchange Theatre, however, all views are my own :)