Here’s your next ambitious, wide-reaching, politically biting play about China... Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s play inevitably brings to mind Chimerica, Lucy Kirkwood’s current smash-hit. It lacks Chimerica’s subtlety - much of the humour comes from pushing crass boundaries (Extreme Happiness opens with a description of a tofu-like turd sliding down a face), while on a plotting level, dark back-stories are alluded to in a clanking fashion.
But it is also fearless, zippily-paced, and satirical, shining a light on Chinese society’s necessary doublethink, be that willful blindness to the political past, or an equally blind belief in an impossibly brilliant future. One character claims you can either see the truth and feel the pain, or look away and enjoy money and happiness. Cowhig forces us down the long hard look path.
Sunny (played by Harry Potter star Katie Leung) is born the fifth unwanted girl to a peasant family; her father is more loving towards his racing pigeons, a female child being “a thing” to be thrown in the slop bucket. She survives this fate, growing up to become a sparky young woman, moving to the city to work in a rainbow-lit factory full of glowing toy dolls (the design from Chloe Lamford is excellent). And much of Extreme Happiness is an exposé of the second-class status and appalling treatment of migrant workers. At her factory, they keep committing suicide; bosses have to find a way to spin this bad PR, hitting on a documentary showing their factories as an “institution of social welfare”, when they really amount to little more than slave labour.
Sunny’s hopes for a better life are raised by self-help, motivational classes - all camply neon, “realise you destiny” nonsense, played hard for (easy) laughs. She gets her promotion, returns home to exact a positively Greek revenge on her father, before seeing off a supposed chum in a competition to be the country-girl-done-good speechmaker at the documentary premiere. All this backstabbing is a problem though: to elicit dramatic pay-off, most of Cowhig’s characters exhibit a complete lack of sympathy or empathy - one man’s misfortune is always another’s cynical step-up. In the first half, this is a vicious source of amusement; in the second it sours, leaving some characters lacking humanity. There is a turn towards the power of the collective and a righteous moral rebellion, but it’s unlikely and last minute.
Despite this, Extreme Happiness - if not exactly producing that feeling - is largely more enjoyable than it might sound, even as it ultimately reaches deeply disquieting conclusions.
To 26 October; 020 7452 3244, theshed.nationaltheatre.org.uk