The latest from award-winning playwright Vanessa Bates (previously of Sydney Theatre Company’s Darling Oscar, and Barking Gecko Theatre’s A Ghost in My Suitcase) and directed by Darren Yap (Griffin Theatre’s Diving for Pearls) is the amusing, chaotic story of two Malaysian-Australian siblings, Mel and Eric, grappling with the impending visit of their dominating mother Helene (Gabrielle Chan), and what it means to be Eurasian. Billed as a new and eccentric family comedy, The One makes its world premiere at Ensemble Theatre.
The actors’ high-energy performances give this story much gusto, especially combined with the dynamic choreography of Angie Diaz, who also plays big sister Mel. The compelling and creative use of the theatre space and audience participation adds another dimension, almost like an extra character. From the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers inspired ballroom dancing sequences, to a thrilling surprise performance starring little brother Eric (Shan-Ree Tan) later on, it truly amplifies the joy and entertainment of watching The One.
However, the elephant in the room is this play’s trite and harsh handling of identity politics and race relations. The overt nature of this is embodied by the stage setting, which as Eric describes is decked out “like a regional mid ’90s Chinese restaurant”. It looks like a predictable tale as old as the last fifty odd years of race relations and racism in Australia is about to be told. This includes a large sign in Chinese characters which reads “no returns” to riff off the stereotype of stinginess and a baffling fixation on spring rolls as a bastion of Chinese food to Australians. Jokes like these are outdated and frankly, an underestimation of what Australian audiences in 2022 are capable of responding to.
While Mel’s anger and anxiety about her and Eric’s “half Australian, half a blank” identities is understandable, its failure to evolve from anger makes it an overly didactic and parboiled statement of identity politics. This is evident in Mel’s angry reactions to Eric when he wishes to start going by his Chinese name, Ming, and reveal another personal part of his identity to their mother; as well as to her Caucasian boyfriend Cal’s (Damien Strouthos) question about why they haven’t learnt Bahasa or Mandarin growing up. Her responses to both come off in the condescending vein of: “grow up and don’t be so self-obsessed and childish, Eric”, and to Cal she bitterly trods on his question, as though he must be the most clueless white person ever, by barking that it is government-forced assimilation which has prevented them from learning their native languages. It feels unnecessary for Mel’s character to regularly adopt this patronising tone, and to expend such emotional labour explaining overt structural issues.
On the other hand, Mel’s anger is made more confusing since she is often unsupportive of her own brother’s journey of self-discovery, though he shares her concerns about being Eurasian and not knowing their father or homeland well. The conflict between Eric and Mel as to who is “the one”, the favoured sibling in their mother’s eyes, is relatable, but perhaps an unnecessary emotional layer where the themes already feel murky.
Despite these thematic flaws, the play’s exploration of identity and culture flourish more effortlessly when it dwells in the nostalgic, at times silly and usually humorous storylines. Mel and Eric’s memory sequences throughout the play show their sense of yearning and connection to their home city of Penang, through scattered yet evocative sensory recollections. Through these, the audience is transported to the sticky seaside climate; introduced to the funerary tradition of burning paper objects to take to heaven, and the paying of respects to ancestors during the Festival of Hungry Ghosts.
Another highlight is Aileen Huynh’s performance as the angsty, resentful Chinese waitress at Jim’s Oriental Restaurant and Milkbar. Her huge range of physical and facial comedy, executed with faultless precision, is highly captivating.
The One comes through with heartfelt performances, entertaining comedy and its deep yearning for a tangible sense of home beyond the memories that Mel and Eric are ultimately able to find. It’s a whirlwind that’s questionable at times and good, even brilliant, at others.
The One plays at Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli, until August 27, 2022.