Gap year ardour

Neon Tiger (A La Boite Production in Association with Brisbane Powerhouse)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

October 27 – November 17

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“Neon Tiger” is billed as the ‘adult gap year you never knew you needed’ and set to the beat of Bangkok, the musical love story promises karaoke, travel and romance. Rather than presenting a hustle and bustle travel tale of the tourist mecca, however, the two-hander tells an intimate account of an arduous and relatable relationship. Brisbane girl Andy (Lisa Hanley), is a struggling indie singer-songwriter working in a Bangkok nightclub, the titular Neon Tiger, when she meets holidaying Thai American woman Andy (Courtney Stewart). They are both searching for something beneath the surface and so, in the heat of the city they explore together, they fall in love, despite their individual character contrasts.

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It’s a charming enough story that is well-paced to play out in what feels like a personal experience. Its examination of human nature under pressure serves as a celebration of emotions rather than intellectual notions or ideological positions, which makes for an easy, entertaining theatre experience. Easy does not mean predictable though and its refreshing take of the tried-and-true odd couple story is appealing as it offers a sober assessment of the relationships of youth without a clichéd conclusion. And while what is ultimately presented is a love story, it is far from just froth and bubble as the show also touches on big issues such as sexuality, culture and racism.

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The script is authentic too in its loyalty to the language of the protagonists rather than heightened, witty or poetic musings, which brings about laughter, especially as the characters banter back and forth in one-liners to the audience as they each recount their contrasting individual experiences and interpretations of common events. And although initially, switches between dual narration and conversational dialogue are jarring, ultimately, they work as a way into later emotional conflict.

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Courtney Stewart and Lisa Hanley are successful in portraying the stories of these two very different women, aimless avoider Andy and the controlled and controlling Arisa. Whether you find them familiar or frustrating, the fact that they are real enough to evoke such responses is a testament to the talent of both actors.

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Although the work was commissioned and developed by the Brisbane Powerhouse, in its La Boite Theatre world-premiere season, “Neon Tiger” works well in the in-the-round space. Indeed, the story is enhanced by a simple, yet versatile, stage design (Set and Costume Designer Sarah Winter); the multi-leveled contemporary set is at-once functional and atmospheric, allowing for recognisable scenes of night life in the Thai capital in combination with Lighting Designer Andrew Meadows’ lush colour palette. Indeed, its strong sense of place is one of the production’s biggest strengths, understandable perhaps given that the work is the result of a 10-day creative research trip to Bangkok by playwright Julia-Rose Lewis, Director Kat Henry and musical comedian Gillian Cosgriff.

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Eight original musical numbers composed by Cosgriff, generally enhance the texture of the show, although an early hip-hop number feels jarringly out of place. There is a good balance of drama and music, meaning that when Hanley picks up a guitar to share Andy’s version of events in sometimes-quirky song, it seems entirely natural.

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While intellectually-challenging and emotionally-stimulating theatre can be invigorating, there is also always a place for theatre for entertainment’s sake. The warm and endearing “Neon Tiger” stands both as testament to this draw-you-in appeal and evidence that with regards to its 2018 season, La Boite has certainly saved the best for last.

Photos c/o – Dylan Evans

Superlative social politics

Single Asian Female (La Boite Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

February 11 – March 4

A show with limited flaws is always difficult to review without resort to a thesaurus list of superlatives as alternative to just saying ‘it’s so good’. With “Single Asian Female”, however, there is almost an immediate recognition not only of its greatness but of the reason for it. This debut play from Michelle Law is absolutely absorbing in its authenticity, making for a fresh, fantastic work, to which audiences should be flocking.

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The story follows a family of Asian women as they navigate the intricacies of race associated with life in everytown Nambour. It begins with Pearl (Hsiao-Liang Tang), owner/manager of the The Golden Phoenix Chinese Restaurant, rejoicing in the finalisation of her divorce with delivery of a table-top karaoke ‘I Will Survive’ (who needs disco strobes when you can having flashing Chinese lantern lights?) Pearl is clearly a strong woman, as are her daughters Zoe (Alex Lee) and Mei (Courtney Stewart).

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Classical musician Zoe, the eldest, resents having to move back to the Sunshine Coast after the loss of her Brisbane apartment, but is buoyed by a hook-up with Paul (Patrick Jhanur), a local immigration lawyer.

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Mei, meanwhile, as an about-to-graduate secondary student is anxious to get away, especially from the mean girl pressure of her peers (embodied in Emily Vascotto’s Lana). Sick of being seen regarded as a stereotype, she struggles to reconcile her Chinese heritage and Australian upbringing, with empathetic support from her best friend Katie (Emily Burton).

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It is a bold and punchy script that sees witty humour easily transition into poignancy as there is alluded-to revelation of the reasoning behind what has led Pearl to overhaul the restaurant, revel in charitable crusades and stop going to ‘the university’. It is these layers that combine to create such an emotionally compelling and gripping production.

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Although there is much intimacy as audiences glimpse into the women’s lives, this is also a play about bigger concepts of culture, family and regard for others. As such, it is packed with political references and nuanced social commentary that contribute to, but never contrive the narrative. Indeed, although it centres around many difficult-to-dissect issues, it also conveys a real sense of fun within the social politics.

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Although not ‘in the round’, the staging is wonderful in its creation of a rich aesthetic. The multi-level space of the back-of-restaurant’s living area is functional but also detailed in its decoration, while the restaurant area is adorned with red and gold, lanterns and tables at which audience members can sit.

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The most memorable aspect of the work, however, is the performances of the stellar cast. Hsiao-Liang Tang is perfect as Pearl, inhabiting the role with equal parts feisty sass, fierce strength and tragic torment.

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And Alex Lee and Courtney Stewart are both attuned to their every relationship dynamic detail as siblings, as evidenced by their committed verbal taunting and seize of every opportunity for exasperated eye-roll.

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The authenticity of their interactions is a joy to watch and contributes significantly to Act One’s engagement. And by Act Two, it is clear exactly how much alike the Wong family women are in their assertiveness and resilience.

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In support, Patrick Jhanur is a solid potential partner for the overly-anxious Zoe and Emily Vascotto, in her mainstage debut, shows great promise as the passively-aggressive Ms Popular, Lana. However, it is Emily Burton who steals every scene. There are few actresses who can play a teen as well (as “A Tribute of Sorts” showed), and as Mei’s best friend, she is simply superb, not just in comic timing but in perfect emphasis and nuanced looks that can make even a Lazy Susan turn thing of hilarity.

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Initially, the episodic narrative flies by, however, Act Two, drags a little with the inclusions of some superfluous and overly-length scenes. The opening night audience at its world premiere still responded with immediate standing ovation, so this can perhaps be forgiven.

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While “Single Asian Female” is sure to have a long life in this country, audiences should see it as soon as possible before the specifics of its narrative are revealed, because there is nothing more rewarding than the anticipatory interval discussion and shared experience of realisation that really engaging theatre can bring. It is a brilliant new, challenging and exciting work that not only serves as an entertaining expose of the seemingly simple lives of others, but also a reminder that we really have no idea of what might be going on behind others’ closed doors. Like the smell of oil that lingers in the skin of those in the family living above The Golden Phoenix, it is a work that will stay with you in memory of its essential messages about family and resilience, as much for its laughter.

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Photos c/o – Dylan Evans