Reviews – Park Theatre 2013

Reviews for Yellow Face

 * * * * Time Out, Critics Choice

“Yellow Face is a thesis of a play, unafraid of complexities and contradictions, pepped up with a light dramatic fizz. It asks whether race is skin-deep, actable or even fakeable, and it does so with huge wit and brio. Hwang’s self-mocking mea culpa is delicious and Kevin Shen plays him with fumbling aplomb.

Alex Sims directs with real whip – building momentum as the play moves into heavier territory – addressing the Yellow Peril banking witchhunt of the late-1990s, which saw Hwang’s own father draw unwarranted FBI suspicion.

Most exciting of all, though, is Ben Starr, making his stage debut with a scorching performance – sleazy and sympathetic, earnest and egotistical – as Marcus Ghee. Remember the name: he’ll go right to the very top.”

* * * * The Independent

Yellow Face is a chamber play that encompasses global issues while remaining intimate and entertaining. Its British premiere is a theatrical coup, opening the 90-seat studio space at north London’s new Park Theatre. Alex Sims’s production boasts a fine ensemble – including David Yip – swapping roles as they dart round a tiny, glowing stage under paper lanterns. Recommended.”

* * * * The Guardian

“The under-representation of east Asian actors on British stages received overdue attention late last year after criticism of the RSC’s casting of the Chinese play, The Orphan of Zhao.  So Alex Sims’s enjoyably slick British premiere of David Henry Hwang’s comic drama from 2007 is particularly timely, raising slippery issues about the portrayal of race on stage and in our daily lives.

At its heart is a playwright called DHH (Kevin Shen), who bears a striking resemblance to David Henry Hwang himself: he has written a play called M Butterfly (as Hwang did), whose huge success sees him cast as a poster boy for the Asian‑American community (as Hwang was).  When news gets out that Jonathan Pryce is to play the Eurasian pimp in Miss Saigon on Broadway (also true), DHH is at the forefront of the protests, and in response writes a play called Face Value – only to mistakenly cast a white actor, Marcus (Ben Starr), in an Asian role.  Panicked, he tries to pass Marcus off as having Siberian ancestry.  Marcus, meanwhile, enthusiastically embraces his new racial identity and the success it brings him.  All this happens against a rising tide of anti-Chinese hysteria in the US that sees “the yellow peril” as the new Reds under the bed.

If all this sounds complicated, it’s not in performance, where Hwang sends himself up and teasingly manipulates the facts.  He draws on autobiography (his dying, America-adoring, immigrant father – played here with comic affection by David Yip – in reality was caught up in the wave of anti-Asian feeling) and weaves it adroitly with fiction to create a staged mockumentary in which truth, and perceptions of the truth, are constantly shifting.  Sims’s superbly acted production has real pace and spark, and reaches a memorable climax as DHH confronts the journalist (Christy Meyer) leading the anti-Asian American witch-hunt and realises that his most potent weapon is to turn her into a character in a play.”

* * * * The Telegraph

Only a fortnight ago, Jez Bond’s £2.5 million Park Theatre opened for the first time.  In the main auditorium, These Shining Lives made a pleasing debut but was hardly the barnstorming production needed to christen the venue.  By contrast, its new show, Yellow Face, gave me the best evening I’ve had in a studio theatre for a long time.

Tony Award winner David Henry Hwang has written a fast-paced, self-deprecating comedy whose jauntiness never detracts from its serious concerns: race, professional discrimination and personal blunder.  And Hwang, the first Asian-American to stage a Broadway production, is well qualified to take us through America’s still muddled relationship with its Asian communities.

The playwright himself is the central character, the plot springing from a series of real-life events.  The first is the now notorious casting of Caucasian actor Jonathan Pryce as a Eurasian in the Broadway production of Miss Saigon.  As a leading figure in political theatre, Hwang wades into the dispute, adding his voice to the protesters.

Rather messily, he later casts an American in the leading Asian role for his own play, Face Value. Passing opportunistic actor Marcus (Ben Starr) off as a Siberian Jew, Hwang finds himself living in fear of discovery, embarrassed by his own hypocrisy.

Fittingly, while Yellow Face shows Marcus catapulted to stardom, it deserves to do the same for charismatic newcomer, Starr.  And Kevin Shen, in an even more impressive debut, brilliantly milks Hwang’s neurosis, fretfully calling old colleagues to check he is still “a role model for the Asian community”.  His performance perfecting underlines Hwang’s winning ability to be both narcissistic and self-mocking.

That Yellow Face outshines These Shining Lives is also down to its basic understanding of performance space.  The cast of its sister production feels dwarfed in the larger auditorium, performing an essentially minimalist production in a venue begging for an exciting set and explosive production values. Slickly choreographed by Alex Sims, however, Yellow Face bursts into the cosy 90-seat studio, the cast stalking across the floor and banging four wooden blocks into place for the quick-fire scene changes.  Meanwhile, the audience’s heads snap back and forth to catch the satisfying cameos (of everyone from Cameron McIntosh to the Republican Governor of Texas) that spring up at every turn.

Thanks to Yellow Face, one can honestly – if a little belatedly – claim to be excited to see what Park Theatre, Studio 2, does next.”

Other Reviews:

The Stage:  “Quality is the buzzword here and Alex Sim’s stylish production of David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face is certainly dripping in class.”

What to SeeThe Guardian, Lyn Gardner

**** One Stop Arts“A superb team effort in a superb new venue.”

A-List Magazine:  Kevin Shen Profile

**** Everything Theatre