Ensemble Theatre, July 28


You know those real estate ads that say “harbour views”, and then it turns out that you need to climb on someone’s shoulders and peer through a pair of binoculars to catch a flickering glimpse of the puddle in question? Vanessa Bates’ The One is a bit like that. Buried somewhere in there is a play, alright: a comedy that at its best is very funny and that at its most serious is rather poignant. But, as with those harbour views, too often the juicy stuff is obscured or buried altogether.

Aileen Huynh. Photos: Prudence Upton.

Plays about the migrant experience of living in Australia have rocketed from being rarities to being mainstream theatrical fodder – which is good: the range of such experiences is vast, after all. Nonetheless, well-intentioned, box-ticking “issue” plays are not an end in themselves, and therefore are not miraculously exempt from needing to tick the equally imperative boxes of compelling narrative structures, engaging characters and convincing acting.

The set-up of Bates’ new work is delicious. Much of it is located in Jim’s Oriental Restaurant and Milk Bar, an old-school regional Chinese eatery of the type we have all known (and variously loved or hated), and designer Nick Fry has had a ball creating Jim’s, including using a carpet so authentic that you can almost smell the spring rolls.

It was at Jim’s that the sister and brother team of Mel (Angie Diaz) and Eric (Shan-Ree Tan) triumphed in the 1995 edition of the Young Asian Australian Ballroom Dancing Regional Division. Twenty-seven years on, and the siblings have long ceased to be in lockstep as they vie for the lion’s share of the love from their scarily matriarchal mother, Helen (Gabrielle Chan), who’s about to return to Australia from a holiday in her native Malaysia. Mel’s born-loser boyfriend, Cal (Damien Strouthos) has been cursed with looking after Helen’s adored poodle, Fifi, when he’d prefer to be building Lego and marrying Mel – in some order. Eric, meanwhile, thinks it’s time he came out of the closet to his mother, and then there’s Jess (Aileen Huynh) who could be the worst-tempered person in hospitality since the terrifying “Soup Nazi” in Seinfeld.

Damien Strothos and Angie Diaz. Photos” Prudence Upton.

Ample raw material for comedy is certainly contained there, and Tan excels in the early scenes, playing an Eric who is waspishly dry, and who, when Bates first flicks the switch, can lead us deep into his account of suffering abominable racism both as a child and as a man. Diaz’s Mel, alas, is too florid to be the perfect foil. Almost every line is gilded with twirls, gestures and excessively meaningful expressions, and at some point director Darren Yap should have told her to rein it in.

Strouthos can be amusing as Cal, whom Mel met on a reality TV show, and who, while being an entirely benign force, is not exactly prime marriage material. (Even the unseen Fifi might be a better option.) Chan briefly seems to centre the play at the start of Act Two, but it doesn’t last.

The actors, after all, can only work with the script they have, and this one was simply not ready for the Ensemble stage. While Bates can pen funny lines, too many more are lame, overwritten, or strive for a laugh that was never in reach. Towards the end, the story suddenly flies off into a new, cartoon-like world, where any pretence at comedy is struck off the menu, to be replaced by inanity. A play that got away.

Until august 27.