Nick Le Mesurier reviews Under the Umbrella at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry
Wherever you may go, you’re never far from home. This mixed blessing is the theme underlying the Belgrade Theatre Company’s latest collaboration.
It’s a riveting tale that centres on the dilemma faced by Wei (Mei Mac), a Chinese PhD student living in Coventry, who at 27 is almost too old to attract a husband. What’s more, she’s a Class A Chinese woman, and Chinese men don’t want high status women.
While such a notion might seem on the face of it absurd, even oppressive to Western eyes, to Wei and her family it’s a very real problem. Not that Wei wants to get married, she is happily Westernised, but to her ailing mother Dong (Charlotte Chiew) and her increasingly frail Grandmother (Minhee Yeo) back home in China time is running out.
Desperate, they post her CV in the local Marriage Market, a gathering where the credentials of eligible sons and daughters are pinned to open umbrellas in the hope of attracting a mate. It might be happening five thousand miles away, but it still manages to hold Wei to a tradition that has deep personal and cultural roots. That tradition has a dark side, because in China girls were worth much less when the state’s one-child policy was in force and millions were aborted or killed as a result of it. They’re not equal now. The ghosts of Wei’s dead sisters and aunts haunt this powerful, prescient and very moving play.
Lest we should think dependence on a man is a uniquely foreign thing, or something only the older generation are subject to, we have the sub-plot concerning Wei’s friend and flatmate Lucy (Laura Tipper), a woman who works in Aldi and supports her alcoholic mother while clinging to the ideal of love in relationships with useless and manipulative men. Tradition affects her too: the biological clock is ticking for both women, and it is on their shoulders that the welfare of past and future generations fall.
Under the Umbrella carries a lot of messages, and I’ve only covered some of them. What makes it such an exciting theatrical experience is the strength of the performance, particularly the choreography. It’s beautifully put together: the four actors switch easily between roles, and the sounds and visuals are all neatly integrated. Wei’s plight is pitched just right, and gives hope for a generation of women, East and West, that might, just might, claim the respect and opportunities it deserves.
* Under the Umbrella runs until March 16. Visit belgrade.co.uk or call 024 7655 3055 to book.