RICE by Michele Lee ; Production ; Director: Matthew Xia ; Cast: Zainab Hasan & Sarah Lam ; Designer: Hyemi Shin ; Lighting Designer: Bethany Gupwell ; Sound Designer and Composer: Lex Kosanke ; Movement Director: Asha Jennings-Grant ; Associate Director Ameera Conrad ; Dialect Coach: Catherine Weate ; Casting Consultant: Sophie Parrott CDG ; Casting Co-ordinator: Sarah Murray Fight Director Keith Wallis ; Production Photographer: Helen Murray ; Orange Tree Theatre ; London, UK ; 9th October 2021 ; Credit and copyright: Helen Murray


Reviewer's rating

This play by Michele Lee won awards in Australia a few years back, receives its first co-production – the Orange Tree Theatre and Actors Touring Company.

It is a two-hander tackling issues of class, gender, race, and personal authenticity, all set in Melbourne, Australia. However, there is a twist in that the two female actors not only inhabit the two central characters but also impersonate a plethora of subsidiary characters whether male or female, old or young, and of various ethnicities.

This takes us to the most positive aspect of the production, namely the extremely high level of technical skill shown by Zeinab Hasan and Sarah Lam in representing such a varied line-up. Within the same page, each must swap gender, accent, age, and physique several times and all sustained over 90 minutes. There is huge scope for perils and slip-ups, but on press night everything ran smoothly, a tribute not just to them but to the skillful light touch of director, Matthew Xia, who knows this theatre well and is attuned to the kind of detailed forensic acting that works so successfully here.

The play revolves around the lives of a highly ambitious business executive (Hasan) and her office cleaner (Lam). They coincide one evening and lock horns before gradually evolving a close friendship that compensates well for the many problems elsewhere in their lives.  Nisha is a second-generation Bengali immigrant determined to succeed in a tough male-dominated boardroom world – her focus is on sealing a huge deal to take over India’s rice distribution system that culminates in a disaster-prone executive tour of India. Yvette is a Chinese immigrant and single mother, forced to work as a cleaner after a succession of failed business ventures. She is also trying to redeem the fortunes of her daughter facing a custodial sentence for environmental activism.

Such a breathless summary hints at one of the problems of this play – there are rather too many themes, characters and narratives all running alongside one another. While one can only admire the bravura technique of the actors who have to juggle their way through it all, after an hour or so attention dips a little as similar quarrels and issues come around again like brightly coloured items in a wash-cycle. As so often with ambitious new writing, I find myself thinking that less would be more – a shorter running time and greater concentration of subject matter would tighten up the whole. In particular, the energy drains away after the conclusion of the trip to India suggesting that this might have been the point at which to wind things up.

As usual at the Orange Tree, the production values are high. There seems to be something about the challenge of small spaces that brings out the best in designers. Hyemi Shin’s set is a model of the adaptable economy, as white units double up as a desk, car, toilet, and bed. A flooded basement emerged effortlessly on a sunken level of the set before draining away equally swiftly. A staggered stepped lighting device gave a good impression of an elevator or a fountain as the demands of high-rise office life demanded. There was a confident, smooth physicality too about the interaction of the two performers, carefully curated by an array of advisers – including movement and fight directors and a dialect coach.

So just as the ending of the play was equivocal so is the reviewer’s verdict. The play touches on important contemporary themes but ends up weakening the overall impact by trying to do too much too fast. You are left with the feeling that there may be more technical skill than substantive content on display. But on the central point of the action, namely, how best to take charge of a life where you seem to have few cards to play the actors do triumphantly affirm that there is always room for optimism.