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‘Tokyo Rose’ review

  • Theatre, Musicals
  • 3 out of 5 stars
Tokyo Rose, Southwark Playhouse, 2021
Photo by Steve GregsonMaya Britto
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Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Acclaimed fringe musical about a wartime Japanese-American DJ, tried for treason by the Allies

The true story behind ‘Tokyo Rose’ feels surprisingly obscure. Iva Toguri was a Japanese-American radio host in Tokyo during the Second World War, who reached near-mythical status thanks to her broadcasts of pro-Japanese disinformation across the South Pacific and North America. As a piece of history, it feels ripe for rediscovery – although transforming it into a two-hour musical is a tricky ask. 

The show begins with lively, ‘Hairspray’-esque songs like ‘Hello America’, which jauntily whack us. with all the key dates and details. It feels for a while that Maryhee Yoon and Cara Baldwin’s writing is too obvious, as we’re introduced to a cast that includes a posh British officer, a pipe-smoking lawyer, and a cartoonish presiding judge. 

But Hannah Benson’s production soon becomes more interesting. We learn pretty early on that Tokyo Rose was in fact a moniker given to all female broadcasters in Japan. But the US doggedly pursued its own citizen Toguri as the ‘real’ propagandist. Post-war, we see her charged with treason and the story is interspersed with moments from her trial. Post-war, Toguri is charged with treason and the story is interspersed with moments from that trial. The fight to clear her name takes decades, and we watch as both Japan and American officials accuse her of being a traitor.

‘Tokyo Rose’ excels when it allows the genuinely impressive voice of Maya Britto to properly soar as Toguri. Lucy Park plays a series of comedic roles well, too, in what is a largely serious story. The use of Japanese gives dimension to the performances, and gently asks us to ponder shifting identities, as the cast confidently switch roles. 

Moments from songs in the first half return in the second, as smart, layered motifs. There’s a part of this musical that wants to be something like ‘Six’: the songs are memorable and uplifting, less concerned with the facts of the case. But the writing steers clear of musical theatre cliché, focussing on the nightmare of battling bureaucracy and what it means to be loyal to a state. It’s an ambitious story to tell, but ‘Tokyo Rose’ does itself and Toguri justice. 

Sophie Dickinson
Written by
Sophie Dickinson

Details

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Price:
£27.50, £22 concs. Runs 2hr 20min
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