'untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play' review – a furious and necessary skewering of colonialist classics

Read our three-star review of the confrontational untitled f-ck m-ss s--agon play, starring Mei Mac, now in performances at the Young Vic to 4 November.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

The theme takes precedence over anything resembling a narrative in untitled f-ck m-ss s--gon play, the coyly titled name for New York-based playwright Kimber Lee’s prize-winning work, which is having its world premiere in the U.K.

Prior to this London run, Lee’s nearly two-hour, one-act diatribe played over the summer at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, where it ran not far from a major regional theatre revival of the musical that forms part of its furious inspiration – the global blockbuster Miss Saigon.

Lee is mighty angry at the treatment over time onstage of Asians, who are as often as not depicted as inevitably submissive women, and who all go in this version by the name of Kim. And, by a remarkable stroke of timing, the original London and Broadway Kim in Miss Saigon, Lea Salonga, is now co-starring in the West End musical revue, Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends.

In Lee’s view of a dubious cultural bequest, we find a hut-dwelling Kim navigating the patronising demands of Puccini (Madama Butterfly) and Rodgers and Hammerstein (South Pacific), amongst others, on the way to the Boublil/Schonberg global behemoth. Events come to rest with a sustained scene set no longer in a makeshift dwelling somewhere remote but in the tony environs of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where the fury remains even if the furniture has had an upgrade.

Can more salubrious circumstances shift the received wisdom of the abject, often suicidal child-bride that is so easily passed on from one generation to the next? Such questions are very much worth asking at a time when the wisdom about many an approved work is undergoing necessary reevaluation and where such classics as Oklahoma! are no longer as cosy as they may once have seemed.

There’s no doubting the take-no-prisoners commitment to the material of the director Roy Alexander Weise, who comes at Lee’s thesis unapologetically head-on: there’s little room here for politesse, and Weise brings the various forms of skewering to a sulphurous boil.

He’s helped to no end by a fully engaged cast, headed by 2023 Olivier nominee Mei Mac, from My Neighbour Totoro, here shifting a remarkable 180 degrees from comparative innocence to confrontation. As a cross-generational woman trying to escape the shackles of stereotyping, Mac powers through a piecemeal first half only to fully own her gathering outrage at ongoing bigotry.

She gets ace support from, among others, Rochelle Rose as a narrator who moves in and among the audience in neatly dispassionate fashion and Tom Weston-Jones as the Caucasian stud who seems to be each Kim’s undoing.

It’s easy to applaud the point of view while simultaneously wishing for more commitment to an actual play and not to an exercise in score-settling that, in an intriguing irony, owes its very existence to the kind of show that it proceeds to savage. David Henry Hwang has been down this path before, and colonial misappropriation is endlessly fertile territory now and going forward.

As it is, you leave this production impressed by its argument even as you wonder about the play Lee, in less purely reactive form, might go on to write.

untitled f-ck m-ss s--agon play is at the Young Vic through 4 November. Book untitled f-ck m-ss s--agon play tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: untitled f-ck m-ss s--agon play (Photo by The Other Richard)

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