The Last Days of Limehouse at Limehouse Town Hall
Did you know that there was a Chinatown in London long before the one in Soho? On a sweltering evening in the east end, the Yellow Earth theatre company (with help from the refreshingly authentic Tsingtao beer on offer) turned Limehouse Town Hall into a sort of “hot pub time machine” in order to prove it. Jeremy Tiang’s The Last Days of Limehouse transports its audience through time, but hardly any distance geographically, being set in streets surrounding the hall (with a key scene set in the hall itself), where the original Docklands Chinatown existed until the upheaval during which the play unfolds.
The immersive promenade style and some excellent interactive set dressing further enhance the feeling of time travel; as a piece of social history the play succeeds before a word is uttered. It’s 1958 and, inspired by social activist Jane Jacobs to keep “eyes on the street”, Eileen Cunningham has returned from America to save her childhood home from the bulldozers of redevelopment. This is a community divided by the question of whether progress is worth the cost to heritage, and the story is driven by Amanda Maud’s brassy Cunningham, riding roughshod through town dramatically polarising the residents with her efforts to oppose the government’s plans. Focus is drawn in particular to how Cunningham inspires historian-to-be Mary Cheah (played by Sarah Houghton), and how she causes friction between the Wongs – husband and wife proprietors of the Friendly Noodle café (Matthew Leonhart and Gabby Wong).
The central cast is excellent, in particular Jonathan Chan’s Stanley – a war veteran haunted by the past (at one point literally) – who embodies the difficult argument at hand with a frenzied intensity. Wong, playing characters from three members of the same family with distinction, also deserves special mention. Perhaps the most notable character here is Limehouse Chinatown itself, and the company, under direction from Gary Merry and Kumiko Mendl, have done an excellent job of portraying both the area as it was and, through yearning projected video footage, how little of it still exists in the real world outside the hall. The scene set in the hall, where objections to parliaments plans are passionately debated as they presumably were in the very same room half a century before, is an especially powerful example of the generation-spanning magic at play in this masterpiece of evocative historical storytelling.
Photos: Robert Workman
The Last Days of Limehouse is at Limehouse Town Hall until 3rd August 2014, for further information or to book visit here.
Watch a preview teaser of the show here: