The One | Ensemble Theatre

Image by Prudence Upton

Growing up mixed-race can be complicated and confusing for kids trying to figure out their identity. Add to that splitting your childhood between two countries, having an absent father, and trying to integrate into a racist Australian society and the early years for Eric and Mel were tough ones. With such an unstable foundation, what kind of lives can they make for themselves in adulthood?

Mel (Angie Diaz) and Eric (Shan-Ree Tan) used to be close as kids when they immigrated to Australia with their father and mother Helen (Gabrielle Chan). While Eric doesn’t have strong memories of their birthplace in Malaysia, they both remember their years of competing together in youth ballroom competitions. Returning to the site of one of their last contests at Jim’s Oriental Restaurant and Milk Bar for their mother’s upcoming birthday celebration brings up a range of memories that sharply illuminate what brother and sister share (mixed-race identity and an absent father) and what they don’t (different experiences of racism and discrimination and varying parental pressures). Both take the opportunity to work up the courage to embrace the life they want and reveal themselves finally to their mother but not everyone is ready to move so swiftly into the future.

Vanessa Bates’s family comedy treads the same grounds of many in the genre with children hesitant to expose themselves to the criticism of their parents or to pursue an open and honest adult relationship with them. Her characters, however, have the added complication of their racial and cultural identities to consider as mixed-race children growing up as minorities in their father’s country and without their father. In this way Bates considers a specifically modern Australian context with characters negotiating complex personal, social, and cultural boundaries, expectations, and perceptions. The use of a brother and sister pair was particularly effective for comparing experiences and illustrating the personal, individual nature of identity creation while adding a biting, snappy dynamic to the dialogue. However, the overall pacing of the script was unbalanced with long, drawn-out conflicts in the first act, especially between Mel and her partner Cal (Damien Strouthos) regarding Helen’s beloved dog Fifi, while the conflicts of the second act around the closure of Jim’s Oriental Restaurant and Milk Bar and a violent mental breakdown from the sole remaining employee Jess (Aileen Huynh) were rushed through and inadequately explored. This lopsided pacing only exacerbated the scattered plot of the script by confusing the story’s focus and lingering on trivial points while neglecting more significant narrative details. That being said, there was warmth and intrigue in the lives of Bates’s characters and potent images like Mel left standing alone on stage as a child and Mel and Eric’s shared memories of incense scenting Penang’s streets. These moments that blended the originality of these characters with the tried-and-true conventions of family comedy were Bates’s strongest.

The direction by Darren Yap amplified the humour of the script with exuberant physicality and a buoyancy to the dialogue and the increasingly silly circumstances that kept the characters perpetually tumbling along. The characterisation of Cal was particularly comical as an air-headed creative-type with a real Aussie lack of self-awareness and abundance of self-deprecation. As the opposite, Huynh’s Jess as a staunch, stiff-lipped server/cleaner/cook/hostess for the crumbling restaurant was an astute nod to the devastated hospitality industry throughout the COVID-19 pandemic; a comrade alongside the theatre and performance industries. In tandem to Yap’s comedic approach, there was an air of sentimentality to the production as represented in dream sequences and memory flashbacks to Mel and Eric’s childhood. These were signalled with shifts in Verity Hampson’s lighting design into shadowy, moody states with flickering wall sconces and projections of family photos and dreamy, flowing patterns. Additionally, the sound design by Michael Tan brought the calm, echoing gongs of Malaysian temples and the contrasting energy of ballroom dancing (with choreography by Diaz) from the characters’ memories to the stage. Amongst the highly detailed set design of the function room of Jim’s Oriental Restaurant and Milk Bar by Nick Fry, complete with bubbling fish tank, velvet curtain, and a shockingly patterned carpet, a keen eye for authenticity informed the design of this production.

Similarly, the performances were often earnest and heartfelt with particular focus on the multi-layered dynamic of families. Diaz’s portrayal of Mel captured the compounded pressures of being the eldest girl child with her character’s softer and more contented nature which worked well with Strouthos’s Cal to create a relationship less about contradiction and more about comfort, just like an Ugg boot. Tan’s use of physicality and conversation ticks was particularly effective for establishing Eric’s reserved and slightly resentful position against his sister, and which also served to exaggerate his eventual transformation at his mother’s dinner. There was plenty of potential for Eric to explore his nuanced and complex conception of his identity as were briefly touched on in his embrace of his Chinese name Ming, his recollections of childhood bullying and his different experience of racism from his sister, and in his sexual identity and its impact on the expectations of him as the only male child. Eric was a meaty character that, with more script time, could have been interestingly portrayed by Tan’s confident performance style. At the same time, both Helen and Jess were cleanly and consistently performed by Chan and Huynh but, with much of the plot hinging on others’ perceptions or misinterpretations of them, there was little to substantiate their characterisations beyond reacting to Mel and Eric’s antics. And, yet, their comedic timing generated many laughs.

It’s about time for Australian stages to platform the experiences of being Asian Australian when such a large portion of the population claim part of the diaspora. The One falls alongside recent productions like 宿 (stay), Golden Blood, and White Pearl in exploring the construction of identity as tied up with history, memory, and family when one feels stretched between two races, two cultures, or two countries.

The One is running at Ensemble Theatre from July 22nd – August 27th

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