The poster for this production features a rather forbidding image of an elderly, dark-skinned woman, whose face is adorned with dozens of diamonds in the form of a mask, reminiscent of the designs seen at Mexico’s Day of the Dead festival. The play’s marketing blurb promises a “darkly comic look at family loss and sibling rivalry” with “ugly truths” and the revelation of “shocking” secrets. The programme includes a list of ten possible triggers – from “generational trauma” to swearing. We’re assured that should we be affected during the performance someone will be on hand to escort us from the theatre, and also that at the end we can remain in our seats and reflect on the show, should we need to. Details are given of six self-care organisations. Imagine your reviewer gulping nervously… what sort of emotional flagellation has he signed up for?
Actually, for the most part Worth is a light, almost sitcom-like tale of a family coming together for a grandmother’s funeral. Of Chinese descent, there are four siblings, each very different physically and temperamentally. Penny (Jennifer Lim) takes on the role of tea-making people-pleaser, older brother Jacob (Arthur Lee) is a thuggish drug dealer, Ted (Stephen Hoo) is a successful dentist who never lets anyone forget it, and youngest May (Sara Chia-Jewell) is an evangelical Christian having decamped to America some years before. Completing the dysfunctional clan is Penny’s grumpy teenage son Anthony (Leo Buckley).
The characters are well defined and there are some nicely crafted lines containing a bitter mix of truth and cruelty. Once the characters are established and we have a clear sense of the multiple dynamics flowing through the family, Ted reveals the real motor of the plot: the four children are co-inheritors, but Gran was skint and the house is about to be repossessed. However, Gran didn’t like using banks and both Ted and Penny have been supporting her with regular cash injections for years, so they reckon there must be about £20,000 stashed somewhere in the house. The second half of the play mostly concerns them all trying to find it.
If Worth is not quite as grim as advertised, things do get unpleasantly violent towards the end. The laughs fade as home truths are faced and secrets are revealed, before everyone’s story arc is tidily concluded in one way or another.
The cast are uniformly capable, and gamely follow where the script leads them. These are not particularly sophisticated or profound characters, but the performers mine them for as much humour and storytelling power as they can. As the bullying Jacob, Lee exerts a genuinely menacing presence, and his principal victim, Ted, is portrayed by Hoo with a wretched sense of cowardliness. In the final moments of the play, Lim delights in giving Penny a sort of emotional rebirth, which is pleasing to witness.
Occasionally the action is interrupted by abrupt lighting stings and abstract movements which feel parachuted in from an entirely different production, but overall Worth is a solid piece of entertainment which reaches beyond mere farce but probably isn’t as starkly meaningful as it thinks it is. It’s worth seeing to make your own mind up – just don’t let the overdone marketing mislead you as to what to expect.
Written by: Joanne Lau
Directed by: Mingyu Lin
Produced by: New Earth Theatre and Storyhouse
Worth plays at Arcola Theatre until 29 April. Further information and bookings can be found here.