Thursday 10 June 2010

Blissfully unaware incarnation

Limehouse Nights, Limehouse Town Hall, London

Crossed at its heart by Commercial Road and still virtually untouched by the gentrification that has spread over most of the East End, Limehouse is not hip, it doesn’t pullulate with one room art galleries or Victorian-inspired bars, and it seems not to make too much fuss about those few beautiful crumbling buildings that survived the Blitz - among which is the Town Hall, with its 1970s coffee machines lying dead in hidden corners and its windows covered in ivy. Kandinsky Theatre Company chose to take over this building for a site-specific play by James Yeatman, Limehouse Nights, named after the cult, 1916 short-story collection by Thomas Burke.

Amy Cook’s design effectively transforms the assembly hall into the shady, foggy London of the late 1910s, with a few scenes set in gentlemen’s clubs or wealthy apartments in Mayfair (it is amusing to be reminded that this is a time when only the lower middle classes would consider living in Charlotte Street, and no one with the right education and some good sense would ever venture to the East), but most of the play taking place in Limehouse. Here there is a relatively settled Chinese community, but also the first patronizing guided tours, on the model of today’s London walks, which probably benefit from the interest raised in the English public by writers like Burke.

Starting from the true story of Billie Carlton, the actress found mysteriously dead the morning after a ball celebrating the end of WWI, Yeatman turns Billie into Virginia Cazenove, and follows the investigator who has been assigned her case, called with a literary wink Thomas Burke, and full of misplaced and dangerous good intentions towards the Chinese community in Limehouse, perhaps because he recognizes himself more in their working lives than in those of the posh and reckless society to which Virginia (recently) belonged. Tom’s boss, the fantastically English Neville,  initially means well too: he has just been promoted, has decided to ‘get out of London’ by moving to Notting Hill and getting married, and he really wants to help Tom with an easy case: there is cocaine involved in Virginia’s death, hence Limehouse, hence any Chinese person who can be shown to have been connected to her - Ed Hancock does a beautiful job at portraying Neville’s one-dimensional morality and his incomprehension for Tom’s lack of ambition.

Thomas himself (somehow touchingly interpreted by Tom Ferguson if occasionally, in the first half, with a confused direction) is a blissfully unaware incarnation of Orientalism: having met Virginia’s Irish theatre seamstress, Mita (wonderfully and passionately played by Kerry-Jayne Wilson), and her Chinese husband Lee Chee Kong, he is keen to experience a typical ‘Chinese evening’, insisting that opium is part of it, and he wants ‘to be able to say ‘Mita and Chee Kong, my Limehouse friends’‘. There is no naturalness in his endeavor to become their friend, and in fact the whole idea is, predictably, a recipe for disaster, particularly when he falls in love with their neighbor’s wife and ignites the dormant conflict between those members of the community who freely mixed with the West, and those who didn’t.
But while the plot of Limehouse nights might not be terribly original, Yeatman builds his characters carefully and cleverly, showing a deep involvement in the period he is describing and turning this involvement into believable, engaging human beings rather than into sterile elements of lore. Emerging from the Town Hall into the dark streets of Limehouse, it felt as if we had been sharing a romantic and secret part of the history of London.

Until 11th June


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