Wednesday, August 3, 2022

The One

The One
Writer: Vanessa Bates
Director: Darren Yap
Ensemble Theatre
July 22 – August 27, 2022

Vanessa Bates takes the now familiar theme of cultural belonging and creates a potent mix of exuberant comedy and moving insight into the challenges of being Eurasian in contemporary Australia. An imminent visit from their mother Helen from Penang throws the siblings Mel and Eric into a panic and her arrival creates even more chaos. But secrets will out, and the wonderfully named and realised Jim’s Oriental Restaurant and Milk Bar is the setting for some enthralling revelations.

While Jim’s Oriental Restaurant and Milk Bar satirises a comfortable although bizarre cultural construction, the setting itself is admirably fit-for-purpose (set designer, Nick Fry). A curtained archway allows for dramatic entries and doubles as a stage showcasing pivotal moments for the family, and a staff door to the left provides some amusing slapstick comedy with trolleys. The walls make a suitable backdrop to create some magic as it might have been remembered by the siblings from childhood although they now find it unappealing and can’t imagine why the elegant Helen (a charming Gabrielle Chan) would want to celebrate her survival (and not birthday) in this shabby venue.

We are introduced to this rather eccentric family first by Eric, the more introverted and overtly burdened of the two children, who evokes the mysterious and half-remembered world of the past. Sensitively portrayed by Shan-Ree Tan, Eric does not have many personal memories of Penang except memories recounted to him by others, but he does recall an incident that illustrates the charmed life of his sister.

This memory indicates the underlying cause of his disaffection from life. His lucky sister looks less identifiably Asian and so passes without arousing the brutal antagonism experienced as a child by Eric. In addition, Mel does have real memories of Penang, so that unlike Eric she has a foot in both worlds. However, he does have a very unexpected, highly-coloured and compensatory secret life, and is waiting for Helen’s arrival to reveal it.

We first meet the feisty, exuberant Mel, her energy captured beautifully by Angie Diaz when she explodes through the curtains in a bright pink ball gown, relishing the moment she, a twelve-year-old, and nine-year-old Eric won their section of a regional dance competition. It turns out later that this memory has its painful aspect for Mel as she too experienced racism –but, most importantly, from this point on her relationship with her brother became more distant. Mel, despite her surface vigour, is deeply anxious and has sought ugg-boot comfort in partner Cal (an endearing Damien Strouthos), with whom she has a more fraternal relationship. However, she too has a secret, which she is waiting – nervously – to discuss with the computer savvy Helen viewed by both children as a repository of traditional values.

Mel’s anxiety is played out through Helen’s dog, Fifi, a male poodle fond of fetching balls, whose bark is heard off-stage. She wants to believe that Helen entrusted her with Fifi when she returned to Penang because Mel was “the one”, the favourite child. It seems that Mel’s partner, Cal, does the looking after and a very funny misadventure leads to the renaming of Fifi as Spike, a nice reprise of the theme of cultural belonging.

Joining this mix is Jass (an impressive Aileen Huynh), sassy woman-of-all-work, once a shy girl from China by her own account, who is running the Oriental Restaurant from which Jim seems to be remarkably absent. Overlooked and unappreciated, she takes her revenge in a totally chaotic and zany scene that brings an end to this cultural fabrication. Here, and in other sequences, Angie Diaz’s choreography adds a valuable visual hilarity.

All secrets out, including the less than traditional Helen’s, and harmony restored, the siblings revisit Penang – their anxieties unravelling aided by their shared memory of the smell of incense. While The One celebrates survival, it also gives us the very moving image of a young Helen, newly married, and brought to Australia by her husband, to find herself despised and isolated because she was Asian.

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theatre@ssh.com.au

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