Monday, 14 October 2013

Theatre review: The World of Extreme Happiness

Given its ever-increasing position on the world stage, it's not surprising if China has been a popular theme on the London stage lately. An American play getting its UK debut at The Shed, Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig's The World of Extreme Happiness looks at life for workers in the factories that make over 75% of the world's consumables, but also reveals a two-tier class system that's not so familiar in the West. The distinction is between those born in the city and those still known as peasants, from the country. Sunny (Katie Leung) is a country girl who's been denied an education by her father, as it's too expensive to be wasted on a girl. She moves to a city where she cleans toilets in a toy factory and, spurred on by a culture of self-help slogans, is determined to better herself - so much so that the factory owners see her as the perfect spokesperson for how far their peasant workers progress.

Of course Sunny's speech is, like so much around her, smoke and mirrors, and the world she's actually found herself in is a fiercely competitive series of dead ends, her rural origins always marking her out as suitable only to work for the city people's benefit.

Chloe Lamford's gaudy set design of piled up toy boxes and flashing coloured lights (epileptics may want to shield their eyes at times) fits into this theme of bright distractions from a grim reality where promotions are hard to come by and suicides are shockingly common. Befriending the tirelessly enthusiastic Ming-Ming (an excellent Vera Chok) Sunny is taken to a motivational speaker full of self-help platitudes about deserving the best and reaching for the top. But Ming-Ming herself is not far from breaking point.

Meanwhile even the bosses aren't safe, as revealed in a subplot where PR guru Artemis Chang (Sarah Lam, unrecognisable as the same actress playing Sunny's elderly Aunt Wang) overreaches herself and catches the attention of the authorities. But for all its troubling concerns Cowhig's play has a real sense of humour that's brought out in Michael Longhurst's production. The relationship between Sunny and her younger brother Pete (Chris Lew Kum Hoi) offers a lot of lighter moments as well as allowing for a devastating conclusion.

A title like The World of Extreme Happiness could only be bitterly ironic but this is actually a very well-balanced piece that entertains even as it disturbs. Longhurst and his creatives have given it an intense and well-paced (often frantically so) production that makes this another hit for The Shed.

The World of Extreme Happiness by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig is booking until the 26th of October at the National Theatre's Shed.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

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