Pacific Overtures, Menier Chocolate Factory, 2023
Photio: Manuel Harlan
  • Theatre, Musicals
  • Recommended


Pacific Overtures

4 out of 5 stars

Nimble, imaginative Anglo-Japanese take on Sondheim’s screechingly high concept musical about the Westernisation of Japan


Time Out says

There’s a lot that’s unlikely about ‘Pacific Overtures’.

First, it’s a musical about the westernisation of Japan, starting in 1853: not your standard plot. Second, the book, music and lyrics are written from the perspective of the Japanese by two famously white New Yorkers – John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim.

Since making its Broadway debut in 1976, this has been one of Sondheim’s least-performed shows. In part, this is because it was ahead of its time in actually requiring an all-Asian cast.

In the third of the Menier Chocolate Factory’s trilogy of Weidman-Sondheim musicals – following ‘Assassins’ and ‘Road Show’ – director Matthew White’s staging uses the shortened 2017 version of the musical. A co-production with Japanese company Umeda Arts Theater, it features traditional Japanese movement and cultural consultancy provided by You-Ri Yamanaka, and dispenses with the male actors playing the women’s roles.

In many ways, then, ‘Pacific Overtures’ has travelled a long way from where it began. And part of the experience of watching it is, to be frank, the potential cultural minefield of its existence. This is something that White’s framing gestures at. As we trundle into our seats, the cast scrutinise props from the set as though they’re elements in a trendy exhibit. A guard warns: ‘no touching’.

As the narrator, a puckishly charismatic Jon Chew darts in and out, his attitude and modern dress never letting us forget that we’re watching a narrative of first encounters heavily mediated by storytelling. This weaves through songs like ‘Someone in a Tree’, which lampshades the fact that we’ll never know exactly what was said when Admiral Perry –who was in charge of the first American ships to visit the country – met the Japanese delegation.

It’s definitely there in one of the show’s creative highlights, ‘Please Hello’. Brilliantly choreographed by Ashley Nottingham as a cockeyed Gilbert & Sullivan number, various Western admirals rock up as ridiculous national parodies, gleefully torn from a satirical cartoon. The cast blaze in this explosion of camp, which tears these imperialist imposers to shreds as laughable buffoons.

The show treads the line between exaggeration and seriousness pretty nimbly. The pared-down book brings into focus the tragedy of friends Kayama and Manjiro, whose differing reactions to the infiltration of Western customs tears them violently apart. And just as the score is finely textured, there is real beauty in this production’s moments of painterly minimalism.

I’m a white man from the south of England. I’m not best placed to say whether the show’s underlying theme of Japan’s cultural adulteration by the West is an overly outsider’s view of a complicated, centuries-long interplay of geopolitics. But this production tackles the very specific story it’s telling with imagination and wit. It’s a visually arresting, unique musical that thrives on the skill of the ensemble cast that brings its cross-currents to life.     


£55-£59.50. Runs 1hr 45min (no interval)
You may also like
You may also like
London for less