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Review: Single Asian Females at the Arts Centre Melbourne

By Lucinda Naughton

I am just going to start by saying: please do yourself and this country a favour and go and see Single Asian Female. I do not care who or what you are, go and see this play. It is phenomenal.

The piece of genius, running 140 minutes (plus interval), is set on the Sunshine Coast in the Golden Phoenix, a Chinese restaurant, which leads to a bedroom and house upstairs. It follows the lives of single-mother Pearl (played profoundly by Hsiao-Ling Tang), owner of the restaurant, who immigrated to Australia from China, and her two daughters Zoe (Jing Xuan Chan) who is going through the struggles of young-adult life, and Mei (Courtney Stewart), a teenager fighting with her identity. Their family unit is threatened by Pearl’s secret.

I have never found every character in a cast so relatable. I think this reflects the incredible success of writer Michelle Law, director Claire Christian, and intelligent performances from the entire cast. The intricacies and layers within every relationship are delightfully genuine. Pearl is the embarrassing mother who won’t leave her daughters alone; Zoe is the guiding big sister to Mei as well as the mediator between Mei and Pearl and she survives the dating world by meeting Paul (performed so sensitively by Patrick Jhanur); and Mei is the youthful one surviving high-school with her best-friend Katie (played fiercely by Emily Burton) from other “friends” like Lana (played by Tatum Mottin who will break your heart).

The impressive set of the restaurant downstairs with tables, chairs, and a counter (with a fortune cat, Maneki-neko), and the upstairs, a bedroom, and a multi-functional bathroom (with an exciting stage lift) reflects the tone of the play – it’s colourful, busy, and wholesome. Red paper lanterns hang beautifully from high above. The costumes are creative and so personal to each character; Katie’s funky socks, Mei’s pink puffer jacket which she throws out claiming it’s “Too Asian”, and Pearl’s wedding dress, which she whips out for Mei to wear to her formal last minute much to Mei’s hilarious distress.

Michelle Law you are a genius. The script is so incredibly relatable and funny – every line is important and lands. Law tackles so many issues from racial stereotyping, feminism, abuse, anxiety, Pauline Hansen, privilege, to online dating with astounding sensitivity and effortlessness. She masterfully nails this balance between entertaining her audience and nudging us with a reality check. Not to mention the arc in her story – the first act reels the audience in with its wit and charm, only to have the second act emotionally blast you into smithereens. I’ve cried and laughed during shows before, but I have never cried and laughed in the same breath before.

Single Asian Female is perfectly cast; Hsiao-Ling Tang, Jing Xuan Chan, and Courtney Stewart are a hugely dynamic trio working so well off each other. Patrick Jhanur’s performance of Paul is funny, endearingly awkward, smart, and incredibly real. The second act opens with Emily Burton and Tatum Mottin playing different dates of Zoe, each as insanely ignorant as the next and so well performed and written that I could feel the indignation of the audience; the horror was pertinent (director Claire Christian’s staging here and throughout is engaging as hell – Mottin and Burton stand in the audience while Chan is at a bar table centre stage, the distance between them works as a great physical metaphor). The contrast between these male characters and Paul is hilariously evident in Chan’s physical stance and their chemistry combined with genuine awkward first-date-jitters is so real. Burton’s performance of Mei’s friend Katie is knockout – she is so loveable. It is refreshing to see Mottin’s performance of multiple awful white stereotypical characters. A delicate prod by Michelle Law.

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All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.


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