In DW Griffith's film Broken Blossoms, great visual poetry and an exquisite performance by Lillian Gish are paired with risible titles and a crude scenery-chewing villain. Negativequity's production, which runs only to a sheet, a Chinese robe and a few cushions, cannot match the film's loving reconstruction of Limehouse a century ago. But while retaining the pathos and innocence of the two lovers, Peter Machen's play also humanises their nemesis; in crushing them, he only repeats what society has done to him.
Battling Burrows, once a feared prizefighter, now battles booze and his small daughter, Lucy. Her back bent like an old woman's, she cooks her father's dinner and waits while he hoovers it up before quickly eating the scraps. He rages that he keeps her, asks, "What have you done for me?" and holds up one of his big hands. "Bread," he says, and, raising the other, "Butter."
When Burrows beats Lucy worse than usual, she stumbles into the shop of Cheng Huan, who worships her pale beauty. He caresses the child tenderly, and presents her with both her first pretty dress and her first toy. But Lucy's brief happiness is fatal when her father sees her affection for someone even lower on the social scale than himself "a slimy Chink!" The character of Lucy's ghostly mother is an unnecessary distraction, and the stylised, balletic violence is sometimes too tame, but Rebekah Fortune's poign-ant Lucy and Martin McGlade's virile, anguished Burrows shine in this sensitive, powerful play.
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