“Please, not the red spanner!”
First things first, Studio 1 at the Arcola is flexible! I have frequently bemoaned the new main room at the Arcola’s new premises for its awkward seating arrangement that provided a restrictive playing space which unfortunately seemed to fly in the face of the playfulness of the old theatre. But for the first time Studio 1 has been reconfigured, into an end-on setting in this case, which hopefully means that the Arcola will continue to explore the new possibilities of their new home. The show that it is currently housing is the ATC production of The Golden Dragon, fresh from a successful run at the Traverse in Edinburgh and subsequently touring the UK.
It is a German play by Roland Schimmelpfennig, translated here by David Tushingham, which defies any easy definition, the website blurb says deconstructed soap opera, I’m thinking more fantastical yet modern fairy tale. Five actors play a whole host of characters and indeed animals, frequently switching gender, ethnicity and age in the smoothest of multiple transitions as the storytelling weaves gently around the heart, only revealing just how powerful and moving it is until its closing scenes by when we’re fully enchanted and in the tight grip of this ensemble.
If the play has a centre, it is at the titular Golden Dragon, a Chinese/Vietnamese/Thai restaurant in an unspecified location. From, in and around here, stories of illegal immigrants and their exploitation interplay with tales of dashed hopes, failed marriages and plaintive aspirations, whether the young Chinese kitchen-boy who can’t access the dental help he needs because of his illegal status or the air stewardess caught in a destructive affair with a handsome pilot, or the beautiful giant cricket who is pimped out by an envious ant (yes, really). The vicissitudes of modern life in all their alienating complexities are slowly probed and exposed as we discover how easy it is to slip through the cracks unnoticed.
Ramin Gray’s production resists the temptation to overplay the links between the stories, instead allowing a gradual sense of connectedness to emerge, the actors finding an extraordinary depth of humanity in the counterintuitive casting which works beautifully. I wasn’t too keen on Schimmelpfennig’s incorporation of stage directions – never has ‘short pause’ sounded more annoying – but the constant recital of the items on the menu and their ingredients seemed to merge into the piece much more seamlessly.
It really is an ensemble effort but I did rather enjoy Adam Best’s exploited cricket and coy waitress, the fierceness of Jack Tarlton’s air stewardess and Ann Firbank’s brutal heavy-drinking lover. And though it is a touring production rather than an in-house Arcola one, it feels perfectly suited to the ethos of the theatre that I am familiar with that hasn’t necessarily been so recognisable in this transition period. This however suggests that the Arcola has found its feet and is ready to start punching well above its weight again.