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“Worth” at the Arcola Theatre

Joanne Lau’s dark comedy is set before the funeral of the mother of four estranged siblings. The unexpected news that the quartet’s inheritance has disappeared starts a frantic search for cash hidden around the home. As family secrets are uncovered, along with currency, the play becomes bleak.

Lau’s idea is tidy, and she sets up the scenario well. But tackling a cycle of abuse, from the mother to her children and then grandchild, ends up rushed. Adding the topic of immigration proves another challenge, and Lau’s considerations end up thin.

Tackling all this with humour is an admirable move but adds further complications. Lau isn’t shy about pushing the play into tastelessness – which is brave. And there’s a strict assessment of the siblings’ competition over how much each suffered. But although the play has laughs, the humour is predictable. Mentions of one character’s offstage wife, or bedwetting, or how the children were beaten with electric cables, all come to play a part. Similarly, the escalation with how crazy everyone starts to become can be seen a long way off. It all ends up very grim. Director Mingyu Lin keeps the action tight so that events are pacey, but the piece needs more surprises.

The script’s strengths come with its closely observed characters, which lead to neat performances. The siblings are distinct and show the effects of their childhood in different ways. Arthur Lee makes a convincing psychopath as Jacob. Sara Chia-Jewell has a tougher job as the highly strung youngest child, May. Having moved to America and found religion, much of the competition over misery rests on her shoulders. Stephen Hoo does well in the play’s most harrowing scene as the insecure yet successful Ted, while the always-apologising Penny makes a great role for Jennifer Lim, who has a firm grasp of the play’s comedy and a strong stage presence.

Leo Buckley

There’s also an interesting role for Leo Buckley, who plays Penny’s child, Anthony, with skill. Lau writes this young part especially well – taking care to moderate how petulant he is and making him a foil for his elders while still being a rounded role. The characters are written well and make Worth entertaining, but what Lau does with them just isn’t enough.

Until 29 April 2023


Photos by Ikin Yum