To look at the offerings on stage in Yorkshire, you might easily go through life thoroughly unaware of Leeds’ large Chinese community. From Shore to Shore (Piao Yang Guo Hai) rights this wrong, telling the verbatim tales of Chinese people, both newly arrived and British born. This charming touring production bares its soul and finally gives a place on stage to an overlooked set of voices.
Set in and around a Chinese restaurant, the audience is treated to a two-course meal alongside the show. Food is the lifeline that connects the three stories told, and as we see a young Cheung Wing tempted to follow strangers at the promise of a warm soup, I can still taste the same course lingering on my tongue. The warmth and emotionally familiarity of food offers an immediate empathy for characters by using the same palate. It’s a clever move that forces us to review the way we think of stereotypes. So often Chinese communities are boiled down to the menus, a number 71 at the local. By framing a hearty dinner with turbulent political history and a beautiful array of languages, China’s heritage is brought centre stage instead of swept under the carpet.
Mary Cooper’s script (written in collaboration with MW Sun) weaves together the multi-lingual element of Chinese identity, further strengthening the connection with the interviews which inspired the show. Its verbatim feel packs a punch when it comes to the emotional climax of the show. Mei Lan’s (Yvonne Wan) story in particular carries a raw narrative that sits heavily in the gut. The difficult themes within this segment are handled with care and respect, effectively conveying hardships without exploiting them. Wan’s broad Leeds accent is somewhat overdone but her ability to create an insecure young Mei with just a subtle shrug tugs at the heart strings. Director David KS Tse gives an endearing performance too as Old Cheung Wing, giving his whole body over to the elderly man, doubled over with experience and haunted by spectres of his past.
The cast aren’t all completely comfortable on stage though, which sends the show off on an unsteady footing. However, as the evening goes on it’s clear that the strength of this piece lies in the experiences on which the show’s based. The sheer authenticity of the stories told tonight is what grips us, staving off the hunger between courses as the narrative keeps the audience sated instead. Also, the food (the food!) is incredibly delicious.
The emotional ripples of this show can be felt even now, as I’m reliving the experience. That’s how I’d best describe From Shore to Shore: it’s unfair to lump this production with other theatre, as the standard isn’t necessarily as professional, but the stories hold a wealth of variety and charm. The evening feels like being invited into a family establishment; we’re truly made to feel like guests. Thoroughly real.
From Shore to Shore was at St Michael’s Chamber, York, until June 10th. For more details, and future tour dates, click here.