It’s rare to see a musical performed by six strong, talented women; (there is one historical number that’s been on in the West End recently though – no spoilers, but Henry VIII isn’t in it). Burnt Lemon Theatre’s Tokyo Rose fits that bill, but takes all the empowering performance elements seen elsewhere and reduces the frivolity, creating a less simplistic offering. It is also unusual to see a musical about South East Asian people, so put these together and you’ve got a fascinating platform at the intersection. In that space this show explores what happens when a woman is forced to self-identify her nationality, torn between enemies with distinct cultural differences.
Based on a true story, Tokyo Rose tells the tale of Iva Toguri; USA born but of Japanese heritage. She finds herself in Tokyo at the time Pearl Harbour is attacked and is then unable to leave. Fiercely loyal to her US citizenship, she refuses to give it up to Japanese military domination, so finding herself forced to separate from her family. Working at Radio Tokyo, she discreetly undermines threatening Japanese broadcasts by using irony, intending to instead raise the spirits of US troops in the Pacific region. After the war she is imprisoned by the US government, accused of treason for transmitting propaganda, something she strenuously refutes across court proceedings that last 25 years, until finally she is absolved.
Maya Britto is excellent as the determined Iva, giving a truly powerhouse performance. Indeed, this is an all-round amazingly energetic and committed cast that successfully multi-roles numerous characters. Both English and Japanese language is used as appropriate throughout the show, which emphasises that equal weight is given to both cultures. The choreography by Hannah Benson and Amelia Kinu Muus is sharp and inventive, lifting what is otherwise quite a tense narrative. Welcome comic moments really bring fun to the stage, especially Lucy Park and Yuki Sutton playing Papa and Mama, and Kanako Nakano as the cantankerous aunt. Luke W Robson’s set design is imaginatively flexible, cleverly adding extra dimensions to the space and clarifying the temporal shifts in the story. There is also some standout lighting design by Holly Ellis that effectively supports the relentless pace of the show, and is used memorably in an evocative, tableau feature to add enigma and tension.
The music involves complex harmonies, so kudos to the cast for taking it on, largely impressively, although occasionally a little straitened on the night. There aren’t really many songs to leave whistling, although ‘Hot off the Press’ performed by Amy Parker does stand out. Lyrics from Maryhee Yoon and Cara Baldwin in other numbers are often poetically sensitive, often reflecting Japanese culture’s affinity with nature.
The show offers a well-balanced portrayal of how the two countries behave in war, each with good and bad points, while raising challenging themes of behaviours under threat to remind us that the integrity of the individual self is vital. It’s a lengthy story, so could benefit from more changes in pace, to allow a breathing space from the insistent action. Possibly shaving 20 minutes off the running time would also help. The second half started to feel a bit repetitive at times and I would have liked an odd softer number to give some more texture.
However, this is still a unique show; a dynamic, high-energy night out with impressive performances. Importantly, in today’s culture when many people are discussing the importance of self-identification and how to be true to yourself, it is also presents a relevant piece of work.
Book and lyrics by: Maryhee Yoon and Cara Baldwin
Music composed by: William Patrick Harrison
Directed by: Hannah Benson
Choreography by: Hannah Benson and Amelia Kinu Muus
Produced by: Tanya Agarwal on behalf of Burnt Lemon Theatre in association with MAST Mayflower Southampton and Birmingham Hippodrome
18 – 20 October: Curve Theatre, Leicester
21 – 23 October The North Wall Arts Centre, Oxford
25 – 27 October Corn Exchange, Newbury
28 – 30 October Birmingham Hippodrome