Review by Thomas Gregory
I am embarrassed to say that I have yet to see Single Asian Female, and it sits as a large, sad gap in my theatre experiences. People raved about it, just as they have been about Miss Peony, the new show from Michelle Law. While I sadly cannot compare the two, I can say that if her first show was half as good as her second, it must have been truly amazing.
A vibrant, hilarious show, filled with compelling characters and impressive technical feats, Miss Peony has something for almost everyone. Singing, dancing, some extremely relatable jokes for young Australians, and some very charismatic characters to fall in love with.
Most of the characters in this play are from a very specific demographic - young women who identify as “Australian-Born Chinese” (or “ABCs”) and are trying to find their place in the cross-section of cultures. Superficially, Law asks, “What even are the Chinese values and culture that a young person should attempt to retain as they try to also fit into Australian values and culture?”
I don’t fit a single aspect of that demographic. A sixth-generation Australian descended from European colonisers, a middle-aged male, one might think from above that much of what this play explores would have little to do with me. This is far from the truth.
The superficial plot of the play is that of a young woman, Lilly, attending a “Chinese beauty pageant”, “Miss Peony”, after promising her dying grandmother she would. With the help of her grandmother’s ghost and the friends she finds along the way, she is able to become a finalist before several twists end the night with a bittersweet and beautiful ending.
It could be easy for this play to suit only a small group of people - the young first-generation Chinese-Australian who somehow also relates to both Strictly Ballroom and Miss Congeniality. A poorly-created play with these ideas might only interest those Sydney girls with traditional Chinese parents.
However, the depths of this play explore broader issues: the universal human need for community, the constant struggle between respecting our past and forging our futures, and the tensions between parents and children in all modern cultures. These concepts aren’t taken lightly, either - there is a passion and maturity to the discussion rarely seen in other plays. It is difficult not to find each and every “contestant” at the competition relatable, even if you are an old white guy who had very little pressure from parents as a child.
Each contestant is unique, funny, and instantly recognisable. Joy, the post-graduate student with a Minions backpack, is played with terribly mischievous energy by Shirong Wu. With each new scene, she continues to surprise the audience with hidden backstories. Sabrina, the youngest contestant, is overflowing with all the stereotypical elements of a teenager from the Western suburbs of Sydney but has a deep appreciation for the pageant's history and sees competing as the perfect way to go out with a bang before law school. Mabel Li is having the time of her life in this role, and her physical comedy is unequalled. Finally, Marcy is perhaps the expected character - the stressed child of parents expecting her to do as she is told and not make a fuss. I had the fortune of seeing Deborah Faye Lee for the opening night performance, and her subtle expressions added a new element of story-telling not found in the original script.
Gabrielle Chan however, steals the show. As the grandmother, Adeline, her stage presence is overwhelming in the most positive ways. At different times, Adeline is fearful, angry, and cheekily malicious. When the moment calls for comedy, Chan makes us laugh, and when it calls for tears, she makes us weep.
Of course, the power of her ghostly character does not come entirely from the brilliant actor or carefully crafted script. The costuming of the ghost is something unbelievable and is just one of the many incredible technical aspects of the play.
It’s noticed subtly at first - how the texture of the “stage” reminds you of an RSL or Worker’s Club, and how the surtitles (in three different languages) so efficiently keep pace with the actors. Then the production takes it to the next level.
Everyone knows (and some of us love) the trope of “a character needs to choose an outfit”, but there is no way you have seen such a scene performed as brilliantly as Miss Peony. Nor, despite all the Hamlets I have ever seen, have I ever been so chilled by the special effects used on Adeline’s ghost. Jonathan Hindmarsh and Keerthi Subramanyam are both quite experienced at making theatre look spectacular and are in top form for this production. Julian Starr’s sound design surrounds the small Fairfax stage to convince us of the greater world around the young women. Trent Suidgeest’s lighting succeeds despite the complexities that must exist with such a high-paced production filled with dance pieces and supernatural events.
While I could spend the entire review praising Miss Peony, it is not entirely without fault - or at least consideration for some audiences. The story itself suffers from some minor structural elements, and some may find its treatment of sexual assault not serious enough. Law does take several political stands that might not be for everyone, though they are often in throwaway lines. If such aspects of a production are welcomed, or at least can be overlooked, even those who might be bothered by such things will still find more than enough to enjoy.
It’s a night that will make all Australians laugh, and most of us recognise our friends and family - Miss Peony is another winner for Michelle Law, and should not be missed.