My nana used to make cakes. Incredible wedding cakes. She had a long table in her dining room that was covered with a heavy faux-leather cloth, on which she would roll out sheet after sheet of perfect white icing, then mould it into the tiniest, most beautiful roses. I loved to watch the cake tiers grow and grow, and was breathlessly excited when I was finally old enough to sit up at the table and fold my own wodge of icing into some misshapen approximation of a flower. My nana had incredible hands; I used to think she could make anything.
Heather Lai’s Tea Time Story is her own family tale and takes place, appropriately enough, in the kitchen. Standing barefoot in scattered flour, Lai plays out the story of Lu Mulan and Ying Ying – a woman and a young girl brought together in the noodle kitchen of one of Mao’s labour camps in northern China. As they knead the dough and tell stories, they wait; for a husband to return, for a mother to be well, for China to change. There’s something deeply beautiful about being united in the safety of a kitchen; in this case a distinctly female space, away from the world of the camp. A space in which Ying Ying can learn, and question, and ultimately feel protected by a woman who, it seems, can make anything.
Clearly a piece that is deeply personal to Lai, the depth of her characters is unfortunately never truly mined, their story never fully realised, as it feels somewhat obstructed by a single performer format. Though her indication of the character changes using a red scarf is a neat device, it lends a stilted air to the performance, and interrupts our engagement; particularly in back and forth conversations.
While a baseline knowledge of the events of Mao’s so-called Cultural Revolution will serve any audience member perfectly well, for those more familiar there are moments waiting that will stop your heart: an enraged Ying Ying shouting at Chairman Mao – speaking her own death sentence should anyone hear her, the Red Guard that reminds Lu Mulan of her place, the hysterical sanctity of Mao’s every likeness.
I’m always fearful of projecting my own expectations on to a performance, but in Tea Time Story it feels as though there is a larger script, crying out for space to breathe. This isn’t a 50 minute story. Though, at heart, about this key, nurturing relationship, it is also about the strength and the bravery it took to exhibit any act of kindness, anything resembling defiance at that time. The swirling maelstrom of fear and uncertainty that characterised that period of history skirts the stage, but never quite forces its way in. Tea Time Story is touching, and lovely, and god knows more programmes should come with a dumpling recipe, but it’s difficult to escape the feeling that there’s a bigger tale here, one that runs deeper, and is clamouring to get out.