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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Hungry Ghosts
Orange Tree Theatre  Autumn 2010

Playwright Tim Luscombe is angry about the fact that China has a repressive regime that routinely violates the civil rights of dissidents and that the West implicitly condones this by choosing to look rather at the economic potential of the Chinese market.

To express his anger he has written a play in which a Westerner discovers to his shock that China has a repressive regime that routinely violates the civil rights of dissidents and that the West implicitly condones this by choosing to look rather at the economic potential of the Chinese market.

As you might guess, the playwright's political and moral message comes through loud and clear, if a bit mechanically, while the drama is less successful, the characters having difficulty becoming more than symbols and mouthpieces.

For no particular reason other than that he's interested in the subject, Luscombe makes his hero a Formula One race car driver, in China for a big race. Racing allows Luscombe to talk about big Western money jockeying for a toehold in China, but his hero could just as easily have been a corporate underling, part of a trade delegation, or even a backpacking gap year student; the Formula One is just window dressing.

His sponsors make the driver meet with a hustling Chinese journalist who is himself being bothered by his dissident sister, trying to get him to help a second dissident sister who has been arrested. The reporter, who has no difficulty being both a passionately loyal Communist Party member and a thriving capitalist, wants nothing to do with his sisters, since merely associating with them could lose him all his perks. But the driver is moved by the sister's story and tries to help, inevitably making things worse.

Neither the sister nor the driver - nor, for that matter, the briefly seen millionaire boss of the driver - is allowed to be much more than a stick figure in Luscombe's metaphor: The Dissident, The Naive Westerner.

Only the reporter and the driver's female PR-person-cum-minder are given enough dimensions and colours for the actors to shape real and interesting characters out of them - the one finally beginning to buckle under the strain of carrying several internal inconsistencies, the other skilfully juggling crisis after crisis through a mix of professional pride and real affection for her charge.

And that's how it works in performance. Andres Williams as the driver and Lucy Sheen as the sister try hard but are just given too little to work with, while Benedict Wong (reporter) and Lourdes Faberes (minder) are able to do far more but, being essentially secondary characters, warp the play by being more interesting than the principals.

The playwright directs and hasn't fully mastered the difficult in-the-round form dictated by the Orange Tree's stage, as too many scenes have actors planted for too long with their backs to half the audience.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Hungry Ghosts - Orange Tree 2010