Arcola Theatre, E8
A death in the family can bring out the worst in people, particularly when it comes to financial matters. In this pointed but sometimes off-pitch new play from Joanne Lau, a Chinese-Canadian writer and stand-up comedian based in the UK, four adult children of an elderly widow reunite at her home — where they grew up — a few hours before her funeral. There they discover that their inheritance is missing and the house is soon to be repossessed. To say that things don’t turn out well is an understatement.
Presented by New Earth Theatre and Storyhouse, Chester, in association with the Arcola, the production starts out as a comedy of decidedly bad manners. There is no love lost between the Yeung siblings, together for the first time in nearly 20 years. Jacob (Arthur Lee) is a slickly cynical, drug-dealing ex-con turned bouncer who relishes having been Mama’s favourite. In complete contrast there is Ted (Stephen Hoo), an outwardly successful, internally vulnerable dentist. Penny (Jennifer Lim) is the simpering, long-suffering mother of the perpetually scornful teenager Anthony (Leo Buckley, making his professional debut). Finally there is May (Sara Chia-Jewell), forever the baby of the family and a morally superior theologian who now resides in America.
They are, frankly, a pretty obnoxious bunch. Why would you want to invest your interest in such unappetising characters, no matter how well defined they are by a largely creditable cast? It gradually becomes evident that the strained relationships and venal impulses on display here are the result of a shared history of abuse. As ugly memories are dredged up, recriminatory scores settled and painful revelations made, Lau’s seemingly shallow, sitcommy and occasionally too shouty script tips over into increasingly toxic territory.
Her core subject matter, the complex trauma that can lurk within immigrant families, is ripe for examination, even if she and the director, Mingyu Lin, don’t always get the tone right. The running gag of Jacob continually getting young Anthony’s name wrong waxes tiresome, and some of the family’s behavioural tensions seem overly contrived or unconvincing. The siblings’ emotionally violent underpinnings are more effectively underlined by brief moments in which the sound rises and distorts, the mildly cluttered domestic setting is drenched in red light and the actors propel themselves into monstrously exaggerated movement. Worth may be flawed, but it still has a dark cultural value.