Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok

The Royal Exchange, Manchester; Monday 26th March, 2018

 

On the outskirts of Manchester’s Northern Quarter sits the popular restaurant Sweet Mandarin, from where flamboyant twin sisters Helen and Lisa Tse have been serving up traditional Chinese cuisine since 2004.

The twins are no strangers to hard graft, or the success that goes with it: they’ve cooked for the Prime Minister in No. 10 Downing Street; won financial backing for their range of cooking sauces on Dragon’s Den; and in 2009 Sweet Mandarin was crowned Britain’s best local Chinese restaurant by Gordon Ramsay.

The modern-day story of Helen and Lisa’s success is well documented and celebrated, yet it seems that this is merely the final chapter in an altogether more sensational drama that precedes it: the remarkable life history of the lady who inspired it all – the twin’s grandmother, Lily Kwok.

Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok tells the incredible tale of how a young girl born into a poor farming community in Southern China in 1918 ended up on a slow boat to England, where she eventually went on to establish herself as The Boss Lady of Middleton – the woman who brought Chinese cuisine to the town for the first time in the 1950s.

In a hard-hitting and often painful-to-watch production, director Jennifer Tang portrays Lily Kwok’s life journey as a relentless succession of personal battles, with Lily facing episode after episode of scarcely believable hardship and suffering. Yet despite the trials and tribulations, Lily seems to bounce back from each setback with fierce determination and a fiery can-do attitude.

Despite the gloomy unpleasantness of the events being portrayed, there are precious glimmers of hope: Lily’s rags to riches story is studded with multiple moments of inspirational wonder – seemingly trivial events and decisions that lead to truly life-changing outcomes, such as Lily’s father’s frustration-smashing decision to stop selling soya beans and to instead ferment and bottle soy sauce himself, which he then set about selling directly on the streets of Hong Kong, ultimately putting his young daughter onto a path that led to her being the lady who fed Cliff Richard and The Beatles during the 1960s.

 

Rather than being delivered conventionally as a biographical depiction of events, writer In-Sook Chappell has instead placed the character of Helen Tse in modern-day Hong Kong, where she ‘meets’ her fondly-missed grandmother Lily, although the meeting is rather more in spirit than in person.

What follows is a private story-telling adventure – one which begins with Helen experiencing a mild identity crisis, a crisis about not fitting in anywhere, feeling like an outsider wherever she goes – a beautiful portrayal of a cultural identity dilemma familiar to most British-born children of ethnic minorities. As Lily puts a comforting arm around her confused granddaughter, she takes her on a bewildering tour of life events that together help to explain the forces that have ultimately shaped the outcomes of both of their lives. Watching the story being told as a grandmother-to-grandchild interaction transforms the telling of an already stunning story into something that feels so much more personal and relatable.

Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok delivers far more than well-produced entertainment for the theatre audience. It also provides a tantalising glimpse into a seldom explored region of the British cultural landscape: so little gets said or written about the British-Chinese community, there is little cultural knowledge out there, other than that the Chinese do very well at school and their food is very popular. But ordering a Chinese takeaway will never be the same again – Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok reveals that behind this staple of the British dinner plate lurks an extraordinary story that is every bit as nourishing and delicious as the meal being eaten.

Summary

Performance aspect Comments Score
Visual pleasure The only slightly weaker aspect of this performance, though inevitable given the reduced space in the Royal Exchange’s Studio. As such, it was effective enough given the limited scope for use of set and props. 3
Auditory pleasure Evocative use of recorded voices to bring characters from the past to life, as well as backing music that helped to set the scene, especially the hustle and bustle of street life in Hong Kong. 4
Architecture & Theme A truly extraordinary story, this is a rags to riches plot that will keep anyone entranced. 5
Artistic delivery Powerful performances from both lead actresses: Siu-See Hung as Helen and Tina Chiang playing Lily – aided brilliantly by the supporting cast who played multiple roles. 4
Overall impact With food being cooked on stage, it’s not often that smell becomes part of the theatre experience. This is as effective a feel-good experience as watching Forrest Gump in your pyjamas whilst scoffing a box of chocolates, this is a play good enough to justify stage time in the main theatre of the Royal Exchange, rather than the smaller Studio space. 5
Final Score: 4.2

 

Scoring Scheme

0 Detrimental – This aspect of the performance was so bad that it made the overall experience worse
1 Weak – This aspect of the performance was poor
2 Adequate – This aspect of the performance was perfectly acceptable, though nothing special
3 Good – This aspect of the performance was above average, it pleased in some way
4 Excellent – This aspect of the performance was much better than normal, it was impressive
5 Awe-inspiring – This aspect of the performance was exceptional, new boundaries were pushed.

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