Chinglish – Review

Chinglish. Images Richard Davenport.

If anyone else other than a Chinese-American playwright had come up with the idea of Chinglish there would be accusations of jingoim and racism in this current climate that puts us all walking on eggshells.

Instead we have a laugh-out-loud comedy that pokes fun at both Americans and Chinese specifically, and different nationalities and cultures generally, and proves that what may be lost in translation is not our sense of humour.

Chinglish, written by David Henry Hwang, has just opened at London’s Park Theatre, and this brilliantly funny show successfully manages to avoid every potential pitfall when dealing with a possibly sensitive topic.

The producers have fallen over themselves to come up with a multi-cultural, multi-lingual cast, to ward off possible accusations of “yellow face,” and they succeed – a little too well – when the audience has to take their eyes off the actors to spend the entire show reading surtitles above the stage.

But Chinglish is very well timed, coming at a point in history when the new, gung-ho, flag-waving American president Donald Trump seems hell bent on alienating almost every other country on the planet and building a wall around his own.

We meet wide-eyed and unusually naive American Daniel Cavanaugh who, down on his luck after being involved in the Enron scandal, is trying to reinvent himself by taking the helm of his family business and striking out for new markets in China.

It’s a truism most of us believe when we hear said: “Yanks don’t speak any other language.” Cavanaugh is hopelessly lost especially when his family business is supplying correctly translated signeage for companies.

He has flown to a small city in the middle of China hoping for a contract to provide signs for a new arts centre but must survive on the translating skills of a failed teacher, Peter Timms

Timms reckons that he has connections, knows how to grease the Chinese wheels of industry, and can land the deal. But the art of comminication can be tricky when no-one knows what the other is thinking, saying or meaning.

Gyuri Sarossy makes a prize fish out of water as Cavanaugh, who struggles to reel in the deal and make sense of his complicated and burgeoning relationship with Chinese official Xi Yan (Candy Ma) and understanding the Chinese way of doing business.

Duncan Harte, as Timms, sounds a fluent Chinese speaker but I can’t tell. There were a number of Chinese people in the audience on the night I was in and I followed a couple out who said that they enjoyed the play but thought that the spoken Chinese “was rubbish.” I have no idea. It sounded good to me.

Also in the cast is Lobo Chan who hams it up with a stereotype as a Chinese minister, with Siu-see Hung and Windson Liong playing translaters whose poor grasp of English has the audience laughing throughout.

You can’t help but admire the likeable capitalist, Cavanaugh, in his perserverance to crack a new overseas market and his success in finding an additional career as a motivational speaker.

The signs are that this comedy about culture and communication will be a big hit.

Chinglish runs at the Park Theatre until April 22.

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