Five East Asian actors “whiting up” to play posh, dago-hating Brits – it could be a biting, thought-provoking satire on racial stereotypes. The team behind the Fu Manchu complex certainly seems to be aiming for this – judging by the series of lectures on British-Asian relations and tensions that accompany the play’s run at the Oval House Theatre. But is the play itself thought-provoking? Unfortunately, not quite.
There are some great concepts here, and the actors throw themselves into performing with a slapstick energy that is perfectly suited to the script. But that’s the trouble – the script never really goes beyond slapstick.
Nayland Smith (Paul Chan) and Dr Petrie (Andrew Koji) are a Holmes-and-Watson duo, out to thwart the dreaded Fu Manchu. At first they think the beastly yellow devil has merely kidnapped their backbone-of-Britain pal Sir Critchton Colonial. But their investigation swiftly uncovers a deeper plot – Fu Manchu’s dastardly plan to convert all of merrie olde Englande into a horrid isle of slitty-eyed swine.
As they set out to save Blighty, Smithie and Petrie encounter every stereotype in the book – from mean Scotch housemaids and cockney/Irish working class geezers (both characters played by Moj Taylor) to Fu Manchu’s slippery, seductive Eastern daughter (Jennifer Lim), and finally the dreaded Fu himself – a toweringly, yellow-silk-clad monstrosity with long fingernails made of scrunched up tin foil (played by Chipo Chung).
Think the Goon Show – or think the now shocking 1970s series Love Thy Neighbour, in which a white working class couple in Twickenham has to come to terms with (good gracious!) having a black couple living next door. In short, think any comedy that covered “race” in the years when it was still OK to describe “races” using words like “Gollywog”.
The two Brits are bungling Bertie Wooster characters that provide no deeper insight into the British lack of cultural sensitivity than the cosiest of self-identifying clichés – that public school boys can be less than heterosexual, for example, or that we Brits are proud of tedious things like Morris dancers. Even though all the actors are of Asian origin, it’s still a bit cringe – and a bit unnecessary – to mention slanty eyes and insatiable stomachs (especially for RICE RICE RICE, as every Brit who is turned into an Asian by the evil Fu Manchu roars).
But given that this is a slapstick play – and not one that’s going to break any boundaries or challenge any preconceptions – the cast do a good job. They all come across as thoroughly endearing and full of energy – particularly Koji as Petrie, who breaks into song to espouse the virtues of “Smithie” in a tuneless ode: “He loves ethnics, duskies and poofs – but only when subservient.”
The simple stage and jokey props, including penis-shaped opium pikes and, of course, Fu Manchu’s magnificent silk-draped costume – are perfect for the theme as well.
The Fu Manchu Complex lacks the polish and the complexity that would make it a meaningful pastiche. But if you go in expecting a panto-style tumble-round, then you won’t be disappointed. The only thing missing was a communal shout of “Look behind you!” when Fu Manchu first arrived – and I’m sure no one would complain if you took it on yourself to get one going.