“We made the revolution, not Mao”
The Sugar-Coated Bullets of the Bourgeoisie is based on more than a decade of Anders Lustgarten’s intensive studies into China and it shows. The play is undoubtedly well-constructed and shines a light on an area that is persistently underexplored by British theatre but with so much information and insight at his fingertips, the playwright doesn’t resist the temptation to share as much of it as he can and it makes for a slightly frustrating experience.
So we get a thorough examination of modern Chinese history through the prism of a small village from Rotten Peach. There, the rise of Chairman Mao and the founding of the People’s Republic utterly transforms the landscape in 10 brutal years but we only get a certain amount of a dramatic rendering of how this upheaval affects the social fabric of the lives of the villagers, too much time is taken up with exposition and explanation, political theory by stealth and thus lacking in theatrical thrill.
The second half feels stronger, this HighTide and Arcola co-production picking up in liveliness as we skip two generations down the line to a contemporary setting where once again, Party officials arrive with an edict that threatens to upturn their lives once again. These scenes are contrasted with life in Shanghai, where collectivism has buckled under the weight of capitalism but with a dry sense of cynical wit as the industry of cheap imitation goods takes hold and the UK’s Conservative government’s lack of scruples in doing business with the Chinese regime is mocked.
The Sugar Bullets… has several moments of real humour – the Chairman Mao impersonators are hilarious – and Steven Atkinson’s direction is mostly very assured. Among the eight-strong ensemble, Louise Mai Newberry and Anna Leong Brophy are charismatic standouts as they face off, Siu Hun Li’s Maos are all entertaining and there’s good work too from Andrew Leung as an increasingly ambitious soldier and Alice Hewkin’s modern-day wannabe pop star stuck in the factory. And altogether, there’s something refreshing and for me, endlessly fascinating, in the depiction of everyday Chinese life.