Finborough Theatre Summer 2016
This is an issue play that effectively presents its ideas and provokes thought, but is unsuccessful at shaping its thesis into living and involving drama.
An idealistic Chinese entrepreneur and his Tibetan staff offer 'sustainable tourism' to rich Westerners in the form of personal guided tours of colourful off-the-beaten-path Tibet that respect both the natural resources and the cultures being visited.
That at least is the theory, though in practice the guides find it difficult to withstand the demands of their rich clients to visit forbidden holy sites or photograph secret rituals.
How far across the line is too far? How pure can a native culture remain when there is money to be made from selling souvenirs? At what point does preserving or reconstructing a temple or village turn it into a Disneyland fake? Is it even possible to turn a culture into a tourist attraction and still respect it?
Playwright Amy Ng raises these questions by following the guides as they deal with customers and argue among themselves, and is even able to show how complicated the questions are.
One guide is a talented photographer, and is lured toward a customer's desire to view a secret rite by the knowledge that she will be able to preserve it for the future and create art with her photos. But, we are pointedly reminded, she is also going to make money from them.
While the playwright's moral issues are presented effectively as intellectual puzzles, they don't make for effective drama. The characters never become more than spokespersons for the author or plot-pushers, because they're not conceived of as more than that.
The Chinese boss is there just to let us know that the business began in idealism, so we can see how it decays. A customer is there just to cause some soul-searching for her guide.
Even the guide herself has little reality beyond voicing the moral questions just long enough to let us hear them and then succumbing to temptation.
Julia Sandiford as the photographer-guide and Rosie Thomson as two different customers carry much of the burden of the play's ideas, with Kevin Shen and Andrew Koji appearing from time to time to kick the plot forward.
Director Charlotte Westenra has not guided her cast toward finding any more reality to their characters – we see the irony in the photographer's rationalisations, but don't believe the pain they cause her.
Westenra's staging falls back too often into just putting people in a straight line across the Finborough's shallow stage, and the actors visibly turn off whenever they stop speaking, just standing there blankly until it is their cue again.
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Review - Shangri-La - Finborough Theatre 2016