Daniel York’s new play is about a complex, but not in a psychological sense; the Fu Manchu Complex is more a miasma of orientalist ideas that he exploits, parodies and redeploys in this luridly collaged satire of the strictly 2D adventure novels and films.
The plot is a loose reimagining of the adventures of Denis Nayland Smith and Dr Petrie, bumbling analogues of Sherlock Holmes and Watson, as they take on the ill-defined menace of Chinese influence – typified first by surprising spring rolls on their afternoon tea tray, and progressing through ninja attacks, opium den shenanigans and dangerous seductions to an encounter with Fu Manchu himself. The adventurous events feel more referenced than seen, making the piece feel oddly like a Radio 4 comedy show – albeit one that would get plenty of “Disgruntled of Tunbridge Wells” writers setting Feedback alight.
Paul Chan’s Nayland, small and gurning in the shadow of gangling Petrie (Andrew Koji), is classic comic double act fare, but the pair’s quips get slightly muddied on their long strolls through the wildernesses of plot. Things perk up when the rest of the underused cast gets a showcase. Jennifer Lim makes a hilarious ninja, his combat an eminently defeatable form of balletic non-contact sport, and Fu Manchu’s brilliant towering appearance is a real moment of physical spectacle, another bit of cross-gender casting exacting a weary gravity from Chipo Chung.
The Fu Manchu novels popped up like evil spore mushrooms at regular intervals from the dawn of WW1 to the death of the 1950s, their villain a kind of tourist-phrasebook guide to racist sterotypes. He’s fiendishly intelligent, unreadable, unpredictable, described by his author Sax Rohmer’s as “the yellow peril incarnate in one man.” This production takes Rohmer’s racial slurs and amplifies them into an enjoyable exuberance of epithets flung at everyone in sight. The duo’s attacks on the “porridgestani” Mrs MacHaggis the housekeeper are as bold an attempt at anti-Scottish racism as I’ve ever seen – putting Groundskeeper Willie and Mr “wee varmint” MacGregor to shame.
But nestled among the comedy are some sharp bits of social observation, pointing out that although the more florid expressions of anti-Chinese sentiment went out with three-piece suits, the Fu Manchu stereotype of impossible intelligence and inscrutable global ambitions still lingers on. Beautifully judged visual quirks by director Justin Audibert and designer Lily Arnold bring race even further to the foreground; characters wear white masks, which are shed, and noodle boxes produced from sleeves as they involuntarily shed their Englishness. Oddly injected homoerotic tension between Nayland and Petrie is less successful – sometimes it’s played for pure, joyful innuendo, like the pair’s timid engagement with wobblingly phallic opium pipes, but sometimes its exploitation for laughs feels like an uncomfortable, if affectionate, tangent from the play’s frame of Orientalist reference.
Nayland Smith and Petrie’s real adversary – far more frightening than feeble ninjas or the avuncular Fu Manchu – is integration, and the breaking down of their carefully constructed binary between East and West. An unusual combination of the very silly and the very angry, this show’s japes aren’t quite jolly enough to tip it into complete hilarity, but its retro take on racist divisions still bites.