Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok

In-Sook Chappell
Royal Exchange Theatre, Yellow Earth and Black Theatre Live
Royal Exchange Studio
22 March 2018 to 07 April 2018

Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok tells the story of four generations of one family through the eyes of Hong Kong born Lily and her British born granddaughter Helen. We see the challenges Lily faces, much of it ingrained in Chinese culture, and how she escapes through her love of cooking. Scenes of despair, violence and broken dreams are offset against the warm aromas of on-stage cooking where her signature dishes are recreated.

Writer In-Sook Chappell uses the story to investigate how we remember and forget traumatic events. Granddaughter Helen seeks her own history in Hong Kong and continually asks Lily (who may be real or imagined in this play) to remember the truth about her own past. Then she extends this to South East Asian history, in particular through Helen's date with a Japanese man, to consider how events are written out of national narratives. It's cleverly done, and we see the parallels between personal and national pasts. How important is it that we understand the truth?

The script weaves a story across time with granddaughter Helen taking Lily's place in scenes from her past to understand what Lily experienced: 'It's what you wanted. You're walking in my shoes'. By setting it in present day, we see the story unfold in flashbacks, key characters coming in and out of focus. Specific scenes are well chosen and evoke the world in which Lily lived. We witness the death of Lily's father, her marriage to an opium addict, her struggle to provide for a daughter, her descent into gambling.

In every way this is a compelling production. It is the relationship between the two main characters - Siu-See Hung (Helen) and Tina Chiang (Lily) - that drives the production and creates the emotional energy that makes this story so engaging. The two are perfectly cast and their relationship utterly convincing. But it's a strong cast throughout; the remaining five play the multiple characters from Lily's past and Helen's present.

The set is beautifully designed and forms a prominent backdrop, changing from brightly lit Hong Kong to a dreamy opium den, to a 'dingy slum room' in Wan Chai, to her restaurant in Middleton, to a gambling den. You really do feel that you're in the world of the play.

A remarkable production that combines a cleverly structured script with outstanding performances and an impressive  set to tell a compelling story of one woman's life.

Reviewer: David Murray


Comment by David Chadderton

I quite enjoyed this show and the story on which it is based is undeniably fascinating, but I didn't have as enthusiastic a reaction to it as Dave.

The production is crammed full of different methods of structuring and staging the drama, which leaves the story as a bit of a jumble with gaps in the narrative that makes it difficult to really engage with the characters for very long (or did for me). Even so, large sections consist of little more than one person telling a story to another person; large, well-choreographed scene changes involving the whole cast just change the setting for the same two people to continue the same conversation.

There are decent performances from a well-drilled ensemble and some scenes are quite moving when given the opportunity to develop, but I was left feeling it was more like a moralising tale for young audiences (despite a couple of more shocking scenes) than a hard-hitting piece of theatre.