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The Fu Manchu Complex, Ovalhouse – Review

Daniel York Loh

Directed by Justin Audibert
★★★
Pros: This show actually produced laughter, rather than just a smile.
Cons: Old jokes from the beginning of the show feel a little like they are re-hashed again and again throughout the show with nothing new to add except shock factor.
Our Verdict: If you enjoy The Book of Mormon style of comedy then this show is for you. A clever piece performed by 5 strong actors. Although it has a very serious geo-political point to make it doesn’t thrust it upon you heavily. 
Courtesy of the Ovalhouse
Inspector Nayland Smith and Doctor William Petrie are two fine upstanding members of Victorian England. Friends since prep school, Inspector Nayland calls on the help of Petrie to find and destroy the source of the Yellow Peril, a dastardly plan masterminded by the most evil of criminal masterminds Dr Fu Manchu, a mysterious Chinaman whose sole purpose is to wipe out England as they know it. 
Combining Holmes and Watson with Jeeves and Wooster, Daniel York Loh has written two characters of such outstanding Britishness it seems that were they to go to the lavatory they would produce English Breakfast Tea. This however is instrumental to the point of this piece: Smith and Petrie – along with all the other colourful characters of the show – are performed by five East Asian actors who turn historical tables on their heads and “white-up” for this show. The Fu Manchu Complex is a clever and funny attempt to confront racial stereotyping.
This is not the first show I’ve seen whose main purpose is to make you laugh using completely outrageous and rude (and some might say inappropriate) humour. The Book of Mormon has been hugely successful in America before making a massive entrance onto the West End Stage at the beginning of this year. For The Book of Mormon it is the Mormons and ‘Africans’ that are the subject of humour and ridicule while for The Fu Manchu Complex those in the firing line are all inhabitants of our green and pleasant land – the Brits, Scots and Irish (sorry Wales) – and the Chinese. 
However, unlike The Book of Mormon, The Fu Manchu Complex has a more complex purpose rather than the ‘just for the laughs’ excuse. Taking its origins from Sax Rohmer’s century old series about the evil mastermind Fu Manchu, which incidentally lent its name to the stereotypical dangling moustache I am sure you will be familiar with, The Fu Manchu Complex is double-fold in that it addresses the historical and extremely racist representations of Chinese in literature and on stage by the Brits and allows five talented actors of East Asian descent to break loose from the pigeonholing that still inflicts them today. 
I didn’t think that the attempt to pastiche the Victorian Music Hall vibe was necessary or effective. It was a superfluous addition to the piece, but the use of shell footlights, which I liked and which added an excellent and necessary sinister feel to much of the show, could have been used without the need to suggest a Music Hall aspect. I also didn’t feel the actors had very strong voices either. The first of two songs was funny, but disappointing in that it wasn’t delivered with drive, and subsequently some of the words got lost. 
Additionally, despite initially finding the constant clichéd jokes quite amusing (if shocking) I found that as the show progressed the jokes were re-told. There is only so much pointing out what is funny about British and Chinese stereotyping before you should move on. However as this show was a focus on that it is understandable why so much emphasis was continuously placed on these points.
Overall, despite my semi-politically correct nature, I found this show was entertaining. It was also great to see five East Asian actors playing an array of fantastic characters and accents. I hope that in the future the creative team that put this together goes on to produce an array of light-hearted Anglo-Asian plays that continue to make the audience laugh, but perhaps with a wider comedic parameter. 
Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

The Fu Manchu Complex runs at the Ovalhouse Theatre until 19th October 2013.
Box Office: 020 7582 7680 or book online at http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/the-fu-manchu-complex

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