Tag Archives: Kanako Nakano

“Pacific Overtures” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Two white Americans telling a story from an Asian perspective might ring alarm bells for some nowadays. Investigating Western Imperialism, with the arrival of a military presence to an isolated Japan in 1853, is tricky. But, surely, the first point in favour of this revival of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s musical is that you’re going to have to think. The work is as challenging as it was when it débuted in 1976, maybe more so.

It turns out that in skilful hands the project works… for the most part. The casting is sensitive. Indeed, this is a co-production with the Umeda Arts Theatre in Japan. There are clichés about the country and the history is whistle-stop, but it should be noted that the show has been updated, with additional material by Hugh Wheeler. Attempts at humour are limited (and excellent, by the way, ‘Please Hello’ is an erudite highlight). Two numbers that deal with sex – both showing violence toward women – make a powerful, disturbing pairing. Nonetheless, it all feels slim.

Director Matthew White’s brilliant staging is a triumph of minimalism, and the show looks amazing. Paul Farnsworth’s set, Ayako Maeda’s costumes and Paul Pyant’s lighting are all gorgeous. And there’s Ashley Nottingham’s choreography, with You-Ri Yamanaka credited as a cultural consultant – the way the cast moves is fascinating, and every action in the show is carefully curated. Could all this almost be a problem? Could the aesthetics be fetishistic: the idea of Japan (that Empire of Signs) can be intoxicating. Maybe you’d counter by saying the idea is potent for nations all over the world. White is certainly overt about the idea of presenting the past like a museum display.

It isn’t fair to say Sondheim, Weidman or White paint broad strokes when they are also precise. But a lot of ground is covered very quickly (the show is short). A saving grace comes with something surprisingly old-fashioned – the characters. A trio focus drama and emotion. There’s Kayama, a samurai given the thankless task of dealing with the unwelcome Americans, and his wife, Tamate, who have a brief but beautiful romantic number and tragic story. Takuro Ohno and Kanako Nakano give exquisite performances in the roles. Afterwards, Kayama’s friendship with Manjiro, a strong role for rising star Joaquin Pedro Valdes, reflects responses to cultural change in an easy manner. And John Chew also deserves praise as the narrator who anchors the show – although his role’s transformation into Emperor Meiji is the book’s poorest move.

Unusually for a Sondheim piece, consideration of his music and lyrics is delayed – there is so much else to bear in mind. There are brilliant songs in Pacific Overtures, the lyrics are a model of efficiency as smart as you’d expect. The score was innovative in 1976 and stands out just as much now. The show is a must for fans – it doesn’t come around that often – and this is as fine a production as I can imagine. Still, for most, the evening is probably more interesting than enjoyable, its brevity being a problem that makes it an overture rather than a complete work.

Until 24 February 2024


Photos by Manuel Harlan

“White Pearl” at the Royal Court

Anchuli Felicia King’s play has opened in Sloane Square while two more productions of it – in American and Australia – are being worked on. That the show is a global affair is appropriate to its themes. Set in the melting pot of corporate Singapore, with a multi-ethnic cast, it reflects worldwide concerns about global capitalism and social media through the prism of racism. Surprisingly, it’s a great deal of fun.

The content is serious. When a grossly misjudged advertising campaign for a skin-whitening cosmetic is leaked on to YouTube and, predictably, goes viral it is racism in the office of the manufacturer that is exposed. The ad was supposed to be funny, but the workplace and the online world become split around those who find it so. It’s the startup corporate culture, which sets about “selling whiteness” without a shrug, that really fascinates. Racism comes into conflict with the aims of a “global community” to create a better future for our shrinking world.

The women from different Asian counties – with their degrees of Westernisation to the fore – make a frequently hilarious case study that proves bravely risqué. Insults fly and they don’t all have wit as an ingredient. It’s pretty clear it only gets funnier the more you know about each culture in question. There are gasps and cringes that Nana Dakin’s direction maximises and the show speeds along nicely.

Farzana Dua Elahe

The cast is uniformly strong. The UCL-educated Priya, brilliantly portrayed by Farzana Dua Elahe, who reaches “epic-level heartless”, alongside the California-inspired Built, who Kae Alexander makes so vivid, are pitted against the “homeland” Asians. Minhee Yeo plays the company’s South Korean chemist, Soo-Jin, with shrewd efficiency and Kanako Nakano makes the diffident Japanese office manager appealing. Meanwhile, Momo Yeung ensures her character Xiao Chen’s too-slim subplot about Chinese human rights works well.

Arty Froushan

With a country resting on each role and sharp satire in mind, avoiding stereotypes – King’s stated aim – is intractable. Nonetheless each character is developed to a decent degree, even if the majority lack self-awareness. There’s no holding back with Built’s ex-boyfriend, though – a sponging French lothario that makes a fabulous role for Arty Froushan, who compares his broken heart to a child dying of leukaemia. He is wickedly funny with every line. What the women have in common is privilege. They’re all super smart and educated with money and connections. Having this elite as targets makes any schadenfreude extra delicious – most will see them as fair, if easy, game.

White Pearl does not contain the “twists and reveals” that it boasts. In truth, the story is thin (the plot around a second video and fraud are sloppy). And ironically, as King expresses valid concerns so common around the world, little in the play feels new. Rather, this is a piece full of sharp comedy observation and incredible details. King’s ear for accents is obsessive; Katie Leung’s performance as the only local woman, who slips between “dudebro-speak”, Singlish and Hokkien, is phenomenal – and funny.

The big questions raised are about humour, which is often said to be the hardest thing to translate and frequently a source of cruelty. King highlights this in a brilliantly performed scene with Priya laughing hysterically at Xiao who can’t stop crying. The jokes provide the play’s most challenging and original moments. What’s funny is the take-home question. It’s posed as a threat. But also, perhaps, a possibility. Jokes cause a pause in, or at least question, the globalisation we see in the play. And an interesting idea arises that humour could save us from homogeneity.

Until 15 June 2019


Photos by Helen Murray