Review: Citizens of Nowhere?, Southbank Centre

The fascinating site-specific and immersive Citizens of Nowhere? makes for an intriguing afternoon at the Southbank Centre

“Things are getting better. There’s Gemma Chan and…well, there’s Gemma Chan.”

There’s a delicious sort of pleasure that comes from being able to eavesdrop on a conversation on the table next to you, isn’t there. Or is it just me…? Fortunately it’s not, as that is the whole set-up of Ming Ho’s Citizens of Nowhere?, part of the China Changing Festival at the Southbank Centre. Sat at cafe tables in the foyer of Queen Elizabeth Hall, armed with headphones, we get to listen in on the British-Chinese Lo family on the table just over there.

Edinburgh-based Linda has come down to London to visit with two of her kids. Jun Chi is getting married and Jane’s making waves in the local Conservative party but she’s got some pretty big news of her own to break as well. And in the way of most families, their conversation gets waylaid by the resurfacing of old history as a way of exploring current tensions, overlaid by a wide range of intersecting contemporary issues about life in the UK right now.

It’s an interesting way of staging what is essentially an audio drama and one which is highly engaging in David Jiang’s production. Even as the hustle and bustle of the Southbank Centre continues around us, there’s a curious sense of intimacy that comes from being the only ones to be able to hear these voices. It is fascinating too, to see how people react to a public space being taken over like this – the guy who pulled up a chair, the ones who stopped to just watch, the ones who went to book tickets for the next show to find it was sold out…

And it helps that Ho’s play is a nuanced and compelling look at the evolution of identity, first generation experience against second generation, smashing together moments of personal crisis with the political crisis looming over us all. Jun Chi is marrying a Dutch woman so Brexit is weighing heavily on his mind; he’s an actor too, who can’t seem to get castings for any part that isn’t a stereotypical cameo. Siu Hun Li plays this perfectly, with just a hint of chippy Scot to him as he castigates his sister for losing her accent. 

Jane’s political aspirations lead her to announce her own impending nuptials and the fact that her last name will go from Lo to Hargreaves has no bearing at all on the Hertfordshire voters she hopes will propel her into Westminster, honest. Jennifer Lim finds real conviction in playing off the political differences with her sibling, even as she details an incident of racial abuse with a quietly bemused tone which perhaps indicates she can’t quite fully subscribe to Toryism. 

Between them is Pik-Sen Lim’s spirited Linda: retired, divorced, with four grown-up children who all live somewhere else, and a nagging sense of wanting to feel like she belongs somewhere. Born in Hong Kong, her parents brought her to the UK as a young girl, to Norfolk of all places, and the motherland is now like a siren call. There’s something achingly sad about this sense of feeling adrift and Lim’s performance catches it like smoke drifting and dissipating in the air, someone feeling terribly unmoored.

Through Linda, Ho makes her most significant points about how reductive terms like British East Asian can be in lumping together people who couldn’t be more economically and/or socially diverse, even within a single family as in this case. And yet in a society (well 52% at least…) that seems determined to maintain a hostile environment, how useful a sense of community, of family, can be. Above all, you should always buy your mum a nice bottle of bubbly, none of the cheap stuff.  

Running time: 45 minutes
Citizens of Nowhere? is booking at the Southbank Centre until 7th October

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