Review: Single Asian Female at The Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre

Review By Lisa Lanzi


A number of elements in Single Asian Female delighted me: A majority female cast, brilliant design, the various thematic motifs, and a family drama centre-stage focussing on Chinese Australians. After a premiere in Brisbane in 2017 then acclaimed runs in Sydney and Melbourne (with a number of different casts), the Adelaide season finally arrived after significant delay due to that pandemic.


We are presented with an intimate, layered world and get to examine the family who dwell within its orbit. A Sunshine Coast Chinese restaurant, plus the family home behind and above, provides a base for unfolding narratives in a somewhat hyper-real design. A poignant naturalism flows between mother Pearl and her two daughters Mei and Zoe that contrasts with other scenes where melodrama rules, caricatures surface, or flashbacks are depicted within a magical realism framework. There is a cultural immersion component evident in Single Asian Female which brought to mind Working Dog’s film The Castle (1997) where the viewer is subsumed into a Caucasian family’s trials, tribulations, and the satisfying minutiae of daily life; at The Golden Phoenix though, the arguments are much more colourful. I was reminded too of another relatable stage play: Nakkiah Lui’s Black Is The New White from 2019 where an Australian Indigenous family comedy unfolds with political and racial themes.


The three leads, Fiona Choi as Pearl, Juanita Navas-Nguyen as Zoe and Elvy-Lee Quici as Mei, are impressive actors and also portray the family dynamic with utter conviction from chaotic screaming rows and sibling misunderstandings to tearful reconciliations. Though melodrama is at the fore now and then, and the atmosphere sometimes leans toward television sit-com, the central story rings true and the importance of family and attachment is key. Each of the three characters is an amalgam of an Asian Australian stereotype (tiger-mom, over-achiever, etc) but fortunately the performances lead us a little deeper into their origins. A devoted mother shouldering secrets and attempting to protect her offspring at all costs, an older sibling trying to make her singular way in between Western and Eastern expectations, responsibilities and prejudices, and a teenager navigating study, friendship, rebellion, and identity in a complex society. Additionally, there are passing mentions of topics like bullying, online dating, women’s reproductive rights, abuse, immigration laws, fragility of marriage, cultural pride, and familial duty. As much as the play moves mostly at a cracking pace there is possibly too much content, huge shifts between comedy and tragedy, along with laborious scene transitions; some judicious editing may be needed as it certainly seemed overlong at close to 2.5 hours including interval.


The other characters are contributed by Kristen O'Dwyer as Mei’s ally and friend Katie, Kathryn Adams as Mei’s frenemy Lana, and Allan Lyra Chang as Paul, Zoe’s love interest. O’Dwyer is a wonderful contrast as a Caucasian girl obsessed with Asian pop culture, providing Mei with support and the occasional reality check. Scenes where the teens congregated did grate somewhat as the voices pitched higher and higher and the melodrama dominated so that their seventeen year old characters seemed forced. The less successful scene, for me, saw O'Dwyer and Adams representing via caricature the various failed online dates who tried to woo Zoe. With lighting costume changes and corny vernacular shifts, we observed a parade of annoying, patronising ‘males’ complete with their assumptions about what defines a Chinese Australian woman.


Set and costume designer Ailsa Paterson has outdone herself with a complex and fascinating set. The audience is welcomed into a vividly detailed environment replete with many visual elements you would expect in a suburban Chinese restaurant including colour palette, lanterns, vinyl seating, and the ubiquitous maneki-neko, or beckoning cat. To offset the realistic detail, other stylized design features are also present: the upstairs bedrooms minus one wall giving the audience a voyeuristic view, exposed steel framing and empty space around the family dwelling, and an airport scene within minimised lit space with only a flashing boarding sign. Paterson’s costumes too range from Pearl’s more refined Cheongsam to Mei’s and Zoe’s very Western attire, to Katie’s cosplay inspired clothing. Chris Petridis’ lighting design is both naturalistic and fantastic as needed. Sound Designer and Composer Andrew Howard has provided much to the atmosphere but the transitional sound was very loud at times and did not serve to disguise the scene shifts. And yes, 90s Karaoke as well as Cantonese pop features in Single Asian Female, with many of the cast giving outstanding vocal performances. As entertaining as the song choices and delivery was, these inserts felt like padding and lines were blurred: theatre? TV soap or variety? Cabaret? Or a new genre altogether?


So, a wild ride that the opening night audience gleefully participated in, Single Asian Female is definitely light-hearted overall. It celebrates family (and I often think white Australians could learn from our immigrant communities about family solidarity), there is chaos - joyful and traumatic - as does occur in households, and there is the indisputable bond between mother and daughters that mostly survives in the majority of families. Above all, Single Asian Female is a tribute to an important component of our pan-Australian community.

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