The Novotel hotel restaurant that Citizens of Nowhere? is performed in is a strange place. Slightly out of the centre of Edinburgh, with grey and white walls and a few sad potted plants, it’s transitory space. Audio guides and free sheets are dotted around the pristine, empty glass tables. This is an area of Edinburgh I don’t know well. I feel strange, disconnected from everything. Other people file in, take their seats, drink their complimentary drinks. I put in the headphones and purgatorial elevator music starts to play. A Chinese mother and son start walking towards me and sit on the table opposite me. They are speaking heatedly. I peer at them over my water glass.
Set in real time, Citizens of Nowhere? is a piece of site-specific theatre originally performed in the Southbank Centre as part of Chinese Arts Now festival. It follows the reunion of an aging mother and her two adult children – Linda, the mother, wishes to return to Hong Kong after forty years in the UK. Jun, her son, is getting married. Jane, her daughter, is looking to run as a Tory MP, much to the chagrin of her brother.
Writer Ming Ho has crafted a tangled, securely knotted short play – the intersections between class and race, what it even means to be British-Chinese, the difference between first- and second-generation immigrants all rushing in and out of the narrative before you can even take a sip of your drink. And there are some great lines, some acutely done character psychology – like Linda’s proud assertion that “I’m not an immigrant, I’m an expat”, and the exploration of the class-race intersection (“I didn’t go through all of that to stay working class”) feeling particularly well-realised. Ho’s piece cuts open the chest of contemporary British-Chinese identity and has a long, unwavering look inside – at the ugliness, the hypocrisy, the care, the love – all are allowed to exist alongside each other in Citizens of Nowhere? without Ho having to tie her narrative strands up too easily.
But I begin to shift in my seat. More often than not, Ho’s dialogue errs towards the over-expositional, family members elucidating things to each other that surely wouldn’t be necessary, occasionally wrenching plot mechanics into place through conveniently placed entrances and exists. The actors – particularly Siu Hun Li’s fiery, tautly held Jun – lend a deftness to the text that it doesn’t immediately offer up. It’s a tight, promising script which goes for a jugular in a short space of time, but it can afford to do less, to let itself breathe, to let the audience join the dots themselves.
Citizens of Nowhere is on at Sweet venues Novotel until 25th August. More info and tickets here.