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The Theatreguide.London Review

Pacific Overtures
Menier Chocolate Factory   Winter 2023-2024

The idea of a musical account of American imperialism forcing trading agreements on Japan in 1853 told from the Japanese point of view would seem an improbable show but this is exactly what Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) with a book by John Weidman deliver.

This Menier co-production with Osaka-based Umeda Art Theatre was last year performed in the Japanese language in Osaka and Tokyo, and now takes to the London stage in the English language with a cast of seventeen.

It’s a stunning production with ten impressive songs and a story that moves from unsettling ominous threats to occasions of satirical hilarity all in one hour forty-five minutes.

We are guided through the action by the Reciter (Jon Chew) a sort of emcee, opening with a song that announces things are “happening somewhere .. but not here”,.

The intense repetitive rhythms suggest a threat that becomes more real a bit later with the song, Four Black Dragons, in which a side screen to the traverse staging opens to allow four black ships to move across the stage menacingly.

Reports of the foreigners approaching reach the Shogun (Saori Oda), who rather than deal with it himself, appoints the minor samurai Kayama (Takuro Ohno), to be the Prefect of the Police who must order them to go away.

When they refuse, threatening to fire on the local area unless they get meetings on trade, he gets a fisherman Manjiro (Joaquin Pedro Valdes), who had been sentenced to death for having been to America, to help him devise a way they can land, and meet with Japanese representatives in a Treaty hut, without walking on Japanese soil.

In the song, Someone in a Tree, we hear what happened at that meeting in the words of an older man who at the time was a ten-year-old sitting up a tree, and the recollections of a guard who was posted beneath the hut in case of any danger from the Americans.

It is the beginning of the end of feudal Japan.

Soon, other nations arrive, each caricatured in the very funny song, Please Hello. There is a touch of Gilbert and Sullivan to the British arrival. Others include the Dutch and the Russian who gets a laugh every time he gruffly sings, “don’t touch the cloak”.

The influence of the West emerges in the gradual cultural changes of Kayama’s appearance, summed up in part by the emotionally ambivalent song, A Bowler Hat.

Before long he looks like a typical Westerner, and there is rumbling discontent among a section of the population with the changes to the country.

The show culminates with images of change to Japan projected onto a lowered screen, as the entire cast sings the song Next.

The old world is gone, and a cast member tells us that Japan will follow the example of the Americans, and open up Asian countries to trade.

Keith McKenna

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Review -  Pacific Overtures - Menier Chocolate Factory 2023

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