When you see the tagline ‘Comedy in Chinese for people who don’t speak any Chinese’, several thoughts may cross your mind. Thoughts like: “This could be the greatest idea ever”, “This could be worst idea ever” and “This could be quite racist.” Whatever you think about the tagline, it’s a bold gambit and it certainly drew a crowd of curious, non-Chinese speaking spectators to the Komedia on Saturday afternoon.
Our (thoroughly Anglo-looking) guide for the hour is the charismatic Louise Reay. The character she’s created works in some kind of pawn shop/jumble sale by day (I think), dreams of finding her future husband by night, while occasionally freaking out about her biological clock (I think), and intermittently consulting a Zoltar fortune-telling machine that prints out small illustrations of men’s faces. We get to see her inner life through film projected on a screen, and the audience is drawn into her fantasy landscape with interactive set pieces.
So, is this the worst idea ever? No. Reay is competent enough to carry a show without relying on word-based gags, and she manages to communicate something of a storyline through film segments, along with props and clowning. Such a mish-mash of ideas has the potential to go very wrong and completely alienate an audience, but in fact everyone was engaged – and although there weren’t many big laughs, the final applause was long and loud.
Is it the greatest idea ever? Again, no – but on the Fringe/alt-comedy scene, it’s a compelling offering. In this iteration, the concept isn’t as well-served as it could be: it would benefit from a less frenetic pace, and the narrative structure of the Zoltar machine, the day job and the inner fantasy were a bit confusing and could be better signposted. It only becomes apparent towards the end that Zoltar is printing pictures of a ‘future husband’, making some other aspects of the show fall into place. The narrative itself is also fairly hackneyed (girl searches for boy, wants babies), and such an interesting conceit deserves a more adventurous plot.
But is it racist? I would lean towards no, but I did find myself questioning whether we were laughing at the foreignness of the language itself. Reay rather relied on a “waah!” sound not dissimilar to the kung-fu trope, and her voice is a little cartoonishly high-pitched, leading me to wonder if we were laughing at a caricature. After all, there are shows that are silent or performed in gibberish; is using another culture’s language simply co-opting it in the service of comedy?
Those are questions that I can’t answer; I can only report that the show raised them in my mind. However, this is Reay’s second hour of comedy in Chinese, and she is clearly carving out a niche which has a lot of potential. If you’re interested in experimental comedy, she’s one to watch.