Bakehouse Theatre Company’s schtick is multiculturalism. According to the program they are “committed to telling stories that more accurately reflect the cultural diversity of our community.” Fantastic. I was itching for some diversity and to see an original story. As I looked around at the mostly white middle-aged audience around me, I felt they might be too. Diversity was delivered. Unfortunately, originality wasn’t.
The story of “His Mother’s Voice” is very similar to that of “Mao’s Last Dancer”, perhaps a little too similar. Shanghaien Yang Jia (Renee Lim) is a music teacher that goes to great lengths to teach her son Qian Lui how to play piano, during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Lui then meets an Australian translator, Emma (Dannielle Jackson) eventually marrying her and defecting to Australia.
The cast was larger than the script called for: twelve in total. Instead of re-using actors as per the script, Suzanne Millar chose to cast all the roles individually. The scenes where Yang Jia and her family are attacked really benefitted from the extra cast, giving the scenes more weight with a mob-like presence.
However in other parts I felt Suzanne Millar’s direction was just a little off. All of the lead characters were too quick to yell in anger. Anger and frustration are complex emotions and can manifest themselves in many ways, however in this piece they were always depicted by yelling and crazy hand gestures. There’s almost nothing more damaging to an audience’s belief than when actors play the emotion and not the intentions. This ultimately led me to disconnect with the characters. I didn’t believe their emotional journey.
Having said this Renee Lim’s performance was flawless. Her commitment to character never wavered. Her scream when her husband’s throat was cut in the first act was of pure agony and I nearly cried for her. Whilst Lim’s portrayal was powerful, I felt disappointed that no one in this production could actually play the piano and it was done through a recorded track. It drove home that I was watching imitation and therefore kept the emotional connection further at bay. I understand that finding skilled pianists who can act might be a big ask but it would have allowed me to better enter the premise and plight of our characters had it been done.
So I left ATYP feeling a bit underwhelmed. It wasn’t a bad show, it just wasn’t outstanding. It is really great to see performers of Asian descent getting more stage time. I just wish it had been in play that brought something new to its audience.