Single Asian Female review (Arts Centre Melbourne)

When Michelle Law’s semi-autobiographical play Single Asian Female debuted in 2017, it was celebrated as a potential game-changer, remarkable in that its three main female characters were all Chinese-Australian. It was an acknowledgement of the fact that seeing yourself reflected on film, on TV, on stage, isn’t just some vanity exercise. It’s powerful, it’s validation, it’s recognition: homecoming.

The play features some warm and recognisable characters and some sustained riffs of clever writing. But, running 20 minutes longer than advertised, it also lacks the kind of buoyancy the rather predictable storyline needs. It’s in urgent need of significant restructuring and a severe edit.

Living above the Golden Phoenix restaurant in the heart of Hanson-country Queensland, the Family Wong are:

‘Mummy’ Pearl (Hsiao-Liang-Ling) who doesn’t like cooking but has slaved away at the restaurant since arriving in Australia as a young bride with limited options and a tax-evading husband who made all the decisions. The day the divorce comes through is the happiest of her life. Pearl’s verbal style is ‘unfiltered’, and if she’s not quite a tiger mum, she’s close.

Mei (the very funny Courtney Stewart) is experiencing intense teenage angst: cringing at her mother’s ‘chinglish’; bewailing her own oh-so-predictable ‘Chinese-ness’ (“I even play the Violin!”) and tightrope-walking between the genuine bond she shares with glorious manga-wannabe nerd Katie (a brilliant Emily Burton), and a faux-friendship with two-faced ‘mean girl’ Lana (Tatum Mottin) – a sneering casual-racist biatch if ever I saw one but, y’know, higher on the food-chain secondary school wise.

The writing between the teenager characters really zings along, and the actors are fabulous.

And there’s Zoe (Jing-Xuan Chan) who’s pushing thirty and dabbling at on-line dating. She’s also a jobbing violinist, faced with the soul-destroying grind of auditions and rejections, dreaming of scoring a desk with an orchestra…

As she will, because there isn’t a drama in this show that doesn’t get solved with relative ease.

The set (Moe Assaad) is on two levels: at the lower level, an evocation of the Golden Phoenix works well enough, but the use of an upstairs area –  a bedroom with cupboard/toilet/and landing that reads as you’d-never-know-it’s-not-tv – seems to slow the action, something this piece can ill-afford.

As it stands, Single Asian Female foreshadows every narrative gear change with such a heavy hand you can hear metal scraping and the direction (Claire Christian) is clunky. Scene changes were slow and energy-sapping: Lights down. Long wait. Actor exits by cover of darkness. Lights up.

Which is frustrating, since we know, from Law’s series for SBS on-demand, Homecoming Queens, that her work can be much more focussed, more punchy than this.

It’s not that her writing style is necessarily better suited to film or TV than stage, but the most successful elements of this piece are the snappy sketch-like scenes and sequences where she plays with modes of performance.

Having set up stylistic possibilities – Pearl’s ‘obsession’ with karaoke, Zoe’s online dating – they’re underused or misplaced.

Pearl’s opening, for example – a mash-up of I Will Survive and a monologue about the particular uncertainties faced by an isolated, vulnerable young woman in a new country, the betrayals of a lyin’ cheatin’ husband and the liberation of divorce; a strong piece of writing and well-performed with Tang singing up a storm – reveals a woman whose assumed cultural passivity hides a very real, fully justified, female rage. But it comes too early in the play and leaves the character nowhere to go. While the ‘secret’ Pearl is hiding (an obvious one) feels like a narrative trope rather than a genuine problem, and it’s resolved so glibly it almost feels insulting.

The opening of the second half, an excruciating, brittle on-line dating ‘montage’ sharpened by the inspired decision to have the (truly appalling) array of Aussie males on offer played by women, allows for some unflinching commentary on cultural and gender assumptions that’s as dark as it’s acute. This one would be better placed much earlier in the show, or interspersed throughout.

It’s a modestly enjoyable night out. And over half the audience loved what they saw, the other half wanted to. But it should’ve been a slam-dunk.

Single Asian Female plays Arts Centre Melbourne until April 21.

Feature image: Courtney Stewart, Hsiao-Ling Tang and Jing-Xuan Chan. Credit: Dylan Evans for MTC.

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