Life is sweet, but often sour

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Indy Lifestyle Online
It's like travelling from one side of the planet to the other in 30 seconds. On first seeing a middle-aged Chinese woman kneeling before a tiny, home-made altar to light a candle with ceremonial precision, the scene suddenly cuts to a brightly lit take-away, where a young Chinese man is scrubbing the counter and caterwauling along to his Walkman. Welcome to Hainault.

Stephen Clark's crisp comedy Take-away - acted to near-perfection by the Mu-Lan theatre company - is piled high with such East-meets-West moments, but the dichotomies never obey the simple laws of sweet-and-sour. The opening image of Oriental self-possession is shattered when the woman reappears to a clash of woks and saucepans, screaming about hygiene. It transpires that Mrs Chow (the excellent Swee-Lin) has been in mourning for her recently deceased husband but is now reopening for business. Her mind is miles away, but the stoves must be kept burning in memory of her Charlie.

Just as designer Jonathan Fensom's dinky backstage cooking area slowly fans out, so her memory becomes harder to cling to as the play progresses. Does it signify making do or moving on? For Mrs Chow's three sons, it's a pressing question. First-born Stephen has already flown the nest to become a businessman, and wants the others to sell up. Allan, the youngest, is fiercely attached to the place. In the middle stands Damien, a would- be actor, torn between self-sacrifice and self-fulfilment; between family duty and a new life with his girlfriend at university. The restaurant's fate hangs on his decision.

This might seem like a crude dramatic scheme, but it's one that rings true of the pigeon-holing mentality that governs most families. Moreover, Clark elicits some double-edged comedy by showing how this resentful co-dependence relates to the wider pressures of racial stereotyping.

Even with the more pleasant customers, the family has to tread on eggshells; they can only grin and bear the abusive ones (there are some great, Pinteresque moments from David Spinx as a foul-mouthed loner). Into a realist, often real-time authentic narrative, Clark throws some surreal tableaux of exaggerated role-play. The Chows cackle conspiratorially, make insidious excretory noises and - in the most memorable sequence - serve up portions of stylised servile behaviour: "One large smile with twinkling eyes"; "One smile nice and not too cheesy"; "Confident with hint of wink, no subtext".

The Chows know they are trapped behind these polite masks. "Let's all take a little holiday from being Chinese and just talk," begs Adrian Pang's tortured Damien. But the atmosphere keeps turning funereally quiet. It's the "silence of people who stamp your passport to places they'll never go", as Damien says later.

The resolution - Damien finds his true voice through acting - is a piece of theatrical wish-fulfilment and, like other expository sections of the play, too drawn-out. But the light lingers last on the betrayed and embittered Allan, underscoring that, for most second generation immigrants, life is not so simple.

`Take-away', Lyric Studio, Lyric Hammersmith, London W6. Booking: 0181- 741 2311. To 13 June

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