“Well done my old flip-flop”
The Irish are a bunch of potato-munching ne’er-do-wells, the Scots are misery-laden domestic servants, the English are what-notting, closeted public schoolboys and the Chinese, well they need to get back to frying in the kitchen with their slanty eyes. From its opening vaudeville-style number, it is clear that The Fu Manchu Complex is determined to challenge notions of racial stereotypes and Daniel York’s play certainly does that with gleeful abandon, whether it manages to take the issue further and advance debate, understanding or appreciation is another matter.
Moongate Productions and director Justin Audibert use an all-Asian cast to tell this particular story – a Victorian murder mystery set in the East End of London – and they ‘white up’ to largely great effect. Paul Chan’s Sherlock-esque Nayland Smith is a charismatic lead, Andrew Koji is simply excellent as his lovelorn counterpart Dr Petrie and Moj Taylor’s grotesque housekeeper Mrs Hudson is vividly amusing as the two men set about investigating the encroaching ‘yellow peril’ and the rise of the shadowy figure of Fu Manchu who seems set on world domination.
The farcical nature of much of the play in its music-hall stylings means that it is funny, often outrageously so, as it pricks at the proclivities of numerous races with its broad caricatures but the humour isn’t really sustained past the first flush of shocked surprise. And it rarely peeks beyond the curtain of performance, into the troubled colonial past of Great Britain and China, particularly with the Opium Wars, and what actually underscores much of the genesis of this particularly pernicious stereotype of Fu Manchu. With so much of this more serious aspect left unexplored, it is hard to ascertain just what York’s intention with the play is.
Over the 90 minutes or so, the one-note level of the crude humour does become a little wearing, one longs for a little subtlety, a little emotion, a little bit of depth to offset the relentless extremity which undoubtedly begins to lose its power as familiarity surely breeds contempt. Chipo Chung and Jennifer Lim round off an accomplished cast and with East Asian plays popping up all over London at the moment, it does feel like we’re in an exciting moment for this genre (If that’s the right word…). The Fu Manchu Complex will make you laugh and make you think but it needs to challenge us to do both more deeply.