German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig looks at the exploitation of illegal immigrants through a surreal "deconstructed soap opera" set in a Thai-Chinese-Vietnamese restaurant. The Chinese kitchen staff are all played by white actors but this time around this fits into the overall aesthetic of Ramin Gray's production, since not only do the five performers (David Beames, Adam Best, Ann Firbank, Kathryn O'Reilly and Jack Tarlton) play a host of characters but they're deliberately cast against age and gender as well as race. In The Golden Dragon
a young boy in the kitchen is in agony with toothache, while a couple of air stewardesses wait for their meals. In the flat upstairs a couple is breaking up acrimoniously while, somewhere, a twisted version of the fable about the ant and the grasshopper is being told. Though it has serious concerns at its core the play approaches them with humour and the cast's relentless enthusiasm helps make this a very unusual but highly memorable piece. Running at just 70 minutes it's like a short, sharp shock of energy and breathless storytelling that may, at first, make little sense but all knits together nicely.
The simple set is of rolls of fresh white paper spread out over a stage, with bits of costume laid around the edges. Sometimes the actors change into these when they take on new roles, sometimes they don't - Gray has found a chaotic visual style that complements the similarly chaotic storytelling. This clean white paper correctly hinted at one of my favourite theatrical memes, of a pristine set that'll be eroded during the course of a show, and indeed set, costumes and actors end up covered in blood, beer and lipstick (though I did wonder how the vocally environmentally-friendly Arcola feels about all that laundry.) Speaking of the venue, after 8 months in the same configuration the new Studio 1 has finally been shaken up a bit; end-on may feel a bit old-fashioned to a theatre that last year was turning in-the-round staging back to front
but I found it a much better option than the awkward thrust they've been using so far. The pillars no longer get in the audience's sightline, nor are the actors tripping over the audience. And I guess it won't help much come winter, but for now moving the entrance outside the building eases the pressure on the too-small bar area.The Golden Dragon
by Roland Schimmelpfennig in a translation by David Tushingham is booking until the 24th of September at Arcola Studio 1.