Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 3 March 2021

Review: Rice! at Omnibus Theatre (online)

20-28 February

Cooking without a recipe: Naomi Obeng writes on a Malaysian and UK co-production about living across two cultures.

Naomi Obeng
Amanda Ang in Rice! Director of photography: Adre Chin.

Amanda Ang in Rice! Director of photography: Adre Chin.

This review won’t be a recipe.

Because that would be too easy.

Take X, Y, and Z. Put Z in Y. Change the properties of X. Add it to Y. Wait, for a predetermined time, reach a predetermined point.

At the end of it you might end up with a whole, a whole something. A whole what?

Doesn’t matter. We’re not concerned with that, because this isn’t a recipe.

It’s a formally conservative theatre review. Duh. So let’s continue.

Wayang Kitchen’s first international online show. An Immersive Edible Theatre experience.

Gōng Xǐ Fā Cái. 57 people in the sunshine.

I hope they’re all in the sunshine. I am. In the kitchen on Sunday morning. My happy time and happy place listening to our chef guide make the requisite Uncle Roger references as we all, in our respective zoom boxes, measure out a volume of water to add to rice to make the rice dish congee.

Is this theatre for the strange times? If so, I’m liking it. The numbers creep up. The water gently simmers and then boils.

It’s evening in Malaysia. I must stop assuming a theatre audience exists in the same timezone. That’s very 2019 of me. There are people from all over the world saying hi in the chat. So we’re not all in the sunshine, but we do feel, if I may speak to the audience experience as a whole, just as I might have done in the before times, held in the same generous weather.

Cooking together. Cooking dishes that will become memory in the play we’re yet to see.

A play about a Malaysian born Chinese woman, Connie Cheng, who feels she doesn’t fit in at home and moves to London in the 90s. Her grandparents wanted her to be a boy. Her parents say she’s too westernised, but whose fault is that? Be careful where your aspiration lies, lest from the nest your daughter flies. We hear her story from two perspectives, Michelle Wen Lee in the UK, narrates a fairytale about Princess Connie leaving home – and Amanda Ang, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, plays the role of Connie too.

There are 135 of us now, zoom boxes, windows into each others’ worlds. Adverts for Malaysia and the UK flash onto the screen. The UK ones make me laugh. Not so incentivising, this isle “Hanging off the side of Europe”. I wonder only upon reflection, why I ended up in this country anyway, England. It always felt like the place I would be, and now it feels like such a task to leave.

Connie stayed. She’s an actor and a singer. She landed a role in Miss Saigon (I wonder, what other show might provide her with a main role in London in the 90s, or even now?).

Scenes flit by fast, playful interactive games come along and dissipate. Telling a story of before and after simultaneously. I welcome the cultural specificity – tea eggs are a lucky dish for new year. Peanut cookies for prosperity. They speak of what you hang onto from your culture when you leave a country behind.

All these elements probe from different angles but a direct through-line of story feels obscured. I feel unmoored. It may just be the fact that I never really sit down the whole way through the show. First waiting in the kitchen to turn off the rice and the steeping tea eggs in the pan. Then unsure when I’ll need quick access to my food. Watching the chat, including quips from the show’s writer Vera Chok, moving at speed, as I crunch on cookies. It’s a lot to take in.

It may be the fact that my focus takes a while to settle. I never quite feel in the show. I never quite feel what it wants to do to me.

But then this play is all about the discomfort of never quite feeling in. And somehow not feeling in almost made it feel even more live. More alive.

i have been craving a cross-cultural experience to be reflected in theatre.
as you grow older your past grows, not further away, but deeper into you.
you rarely talk to anyone for long enough for them to find out, i never talk to anyone long enough for them to understand.
i sink into the creases of another’s experience of flying away from home.
worn seat of the old mitsubishi my dad drove. sun-hot leather and pollen.
through others we understand ourselves.

Even if I find myself bewildered by the structure, I still feel such a close part of the experience. Feeling so effortlessly like I’m in a group chat with friends I’ve never met. A party with people I could one day know. We all eat from the same menu and react with the same set of virtual tools.

I couldn’t write this review in the form of a recipe, it would only draw some kind of fun but ultimately futile analogy. Rice! doesn’t feel like other plays where a set of ingredients, characters and voices are combined, in a chosen order, to tell a story and create a mood. It feels like the opposite of that. Its premise does not seem to prescribe an outcome, its ingredients do not predict a certain pathway for the story to be told. Scenes about Connie’s past and present are juxtaposed, a consequence of its devising process maybe, and the play holds space for a lack of resolution to her story. Truthfully, questions of identity, home and belonging can’t ever be resolved.

I wonder if this play works best if thought of as a vessel for future thought. An experiential point of reference to mull over and return to. An arrow toward something unreachable about identity and home and how food holds the key to the kind of memory that is and will always remain both bitter and sweet at once.

What’s the opposite of a resolution? An opening?

A whole something? A whole what? Who gets to decide what, or who, is whole?

So much for the formally conservative theatre review then. I tried. Sometimes you need to let things happen in the way they want to.

I still have two tea eggs in the fridge. I’ll savour them in good time.

Rice! ran from 20-28 February. More info here.

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Naomi Obeng

Naomi Obeng is an East Midlands based writer and arts journalist.

Review: Rice! at Omnibus Theatre (online) Show Info


Directed by Hester Welch and Razif Hashim

Written by Vera Chok, concept by Wayang Kitchen

Cast includes Amanda Ang, Michelle Wen Lee

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