THE LAST DAYS OF LIMEHOUSE
by Jeremy Tiang.
Limehouse Town Hall 646 Commercial Road E14 7HA To 3 August 2014.
Wed-Sat 7.30pm Sun 5pm.
also Sat 3pm interactive family performance
Runs 1hr 45min No interval.
TICKETS: 020 7709 8900.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 19 July.
Bringing a lost past to life.
Before London’s Chinatown was the brightly clamorous area south of Soho, it referred to dank streets several miles east, around Limehouse Causeway. Here Chinese sailors stopped-off and set-up restaurants, laundries and other businesses. An exotic oriental reputation combined with other East End associations to create myths about opium dens and White Slavery, popularised in fiction and film, while charabancs took trippers on tours of the sensationalised area. All this is detailed in the ground-level exhibition at Limehouse Town Hall, one of the few buildings left from old Limehouse.
It’s worth allowing quarter-of-an-hour or so to look at this before going upstairs to Jeremy Tiang’s play about the end of the area. Set largely in 1958, it shows part-Chinese Eileen Cunningham attempting to form a ‘Let Limehouse Live’ campaign. She makes a poor advocate. Born in Limehouse, she left at six, lives in America and only returns while her banker-husband is posted to England. And then lives across London from her birthplace.
A resolute organiser, she upsets the Chinese of fifties Limehouse who can’t wait for the indoor toilets and central-heating the council’s new homes offer. She fails to fuse individual concerns into a campaign to save Chinese identity. Only Stanley, nursed through post-war trauma by his employers. indicates what might happen to some when the community is dissolved.
And there’s a warning in the one scene with a non-Chinese councillor, consulting on the plans in a politely attentive manner that conceals a decision already made. But it’s only when the action fast-forwards through the rest of the century, and the characters we’ve met age and die, with new generations arising, that Cunningham’s point gains ground. Too late, when the bland new building retains only a few street names to recall the once-vibrant community recreated in Yellow Earth Theatre’s production.
Which benefits greatly from promenading around a large space, gaining in character what it loses in acoustics. Conventionally staged, the scenes could seem contrived, but moving with Cunningham’s busy energy, invading the areas belonging to various characters, intertwining cast and audience, it becomes an experience to bring this once-bustling Chinatown alive.
Eileen Cunningham: Amanda Maud.
Iris/Francis/Chloe Wong: Gabby Wong.
Mary Cheah: Sara Houghton.
Johnny Wong: Matthew Leonhart.
Stanley Lim: Jonathan Chan.
Councillor Brinkman: Anthony Best/Nia Davies/Penny Dimond/David McGillivray/Sean Patterson/Jonathan Swain/Jeremy Todd/John Williams.
Dance Instructor: Shihua Bai/Rita Tsang.
Jenny Szeto: Emoko Jane Ishii/Emma Chung Yi Lau.
Mabel Meng: Rita Tsang.
Waiter: William Kwan.
Bao: Philip Lae/Yiu Fai Choi.
Nurse: Jean Tan.
Colin: Yiu Fai Choi/Lloyd Li.
Directors: Gary Merry, Kumiko Mendl.
Designer: Moi Tran.
Lighting: Pablo Fernandez Baz.
Composer: Ruth Chan.
Video: Eva Auster.
Fight director: Haruka Kuroda.