Pros: The set was absolutely mind-blowing.
Cons: There was too much swearing in a script that otherwise flowed quite nicely.
From the moment I entered the auditorium at the Arcola, I wished I could take a multi-sensorial picture of the mesmerising set into which I had been welcomed. Immersed in a cloud of incense-perfumed haze, a staircase led up to a red curtain, which was guarded on both sides by Chinese lanterns. Two golden doors and pillars with engraved logograms completed the façade, together with a stone fountain and some clothes hanging from bamboo canes. Behind me, a small altar served as a shelter for a sitting Buddha, surrounded by more burning incense and other religious paraphernalia. Lily Arnold couldn’t have provided a better design with her sepia-tinted scenery, which demonstrated great resilience and was complemented well by Elliot Griggs’ lighting.
Despite its two-hour plus interval running time, The Sugar-Coated Bullets of the Bourgeoisie is an entertaining and nicely written play, which keeps an upbeat pace throughout. Only towards the end does it seem to slow down, as if author Anders Lustgarten struggled to find the right conclusion. The London-based playwright has collected material for over ten years and decided to write a play to dispel some of the most diffused clichés about China. The result is a sweet and sour plunge into the recent history of this fascinating yet misconceived civilisation.
He uses heaps of irony to depict the most controversial topics, as we witness the rise of communism, the strive for modernisation and the consequent economic manoeuvres. All of this is presented through the tussles of some inhabitants of the village of Rotten Peach. In a country that is suffocated by pollution, Gao (Siu Hun Li) considers a funeral parlour business the most profitable investment.
To stage this ambitious work, casting director Louis Hammond cherry-picked eight versatile actors, who are called to embody different characters and often switch between them in rapid succession. The outcome is a sparkling ensemble, which is supported by excellent costume and makeup design.
The only flaw of a compelling production is the constant swearing, which sometimes feels gratuitous and undermines the beauty of the script. Nevertheless, Lustgarten hits the nail on the head and has created a piece that is both enjoyable and enlightening.
“It’s the peculiar genius of the Chinese. Take something the West invented, knock it off, and make it cheaper and better and available to everyone”, says phony pop star Xiaomei (Alice Hewkin) to the self-declared actor Johnny (Andrew Leung), capitulating in one memorable sketch the whole logic behind counterfeiting.
Whether you’re an admirer or a denigrator of China and its politics, The Sugar-Coated Bullets of the Bourgeoisie will make you laugh, meditate and nurture some sympathy for the culture of the world’s most populous country.
Author: Anders Lustgarten
Director: Steven Atkinson
Producer: HighTide and Arcola Theatre
Box Office: 020 7503 1646
Booking link: http://www.arcolatheatre.com/event/the-sugar-coated-bullets-of-the-bourgeoisie/2016-04-07/
Booking Until: 30 April 2016