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Tim Winter

Review: GHOST GIRL // GWEI MUI 鬼妹 at The Camden People's Theatre

GHOST GIRL // GWEI MUI 鬼妹 Presented as part of the inaugural Chinese Arts Now (CAN) festival but extending its run for Camden People's Theatre's Spring season, Jennifer Tang's excellent Ghost Girl // Gwei Mui 鬼妹 deserves as large an audience it can get.

The piece, four years in the making and evolving radically over that time, started as a verbatim project with Tang interviewing many Chinese people about their experiences as part of the 'invisible minority' in Britain. Dissatisfied with other work dealing with the Chinese diaspora and unable to recognise in them depictions of her own life as a British East Asian, she starts with her own story.

Four women tell the tale of Kim.

Born in Gravesend to Cantonese parents, originally from Hong Kong, the baby girl is brought up by a very English white couple, friends of her birth mother, and in fourteen quick-fire scenes we are taken through her childhood, adolescence and beyond, and her struggles and confusions as she navigates her British and Chinese identities, often imposed on her by outside forces.

If this all sounds a bit worthy and dull, it certainly isn't. The tone overall is light-hearted, sometimes comic which makes the genuinely shocking ignorance and racism that is exposed, often through taped interviews that are played between scenes, all the more powerful.

Kim is torn between two mothers who both love her and want the best for her. She spends most of her time with her British family but visits her birth mother who, understandably, wants to instil in her some of her Chinese heritage. Food plays a big part in this and in two lovely scenes we see Kim being bombarded with choices from British and Asian cuisines.

Confucius turns up, spouting his peaceful platitudes whilst being shouted down by the war-mongering Fu Manchu in a nice demonstration of the impossibility of defining a whole culture by stereotypes. Britishness is also examined and often found to be just as contradictory.

All four performers play multiple roles, and the fact that this is rarely confusing is down to their talent but also to Tang's excellent direction. That she has managed to create such a coherent work that covers so many issues in so many different styles is quite an achievement.

Ghost Girl // Gwei Mui 鬼妹 was devised by Tang and the cast and their commitment to the project is obvious. Siu-See Hung is totally convincing in the role of Kim, growing up in front of us and emerging as a confident woman despite all the setbacks. The excellent Bea Holland is very sympathetic as Kim's British mum, Janice, full of love and worry as she tries to protect her charge from the cold realities of growing up 'different' to the dominant culture.

In the difficult role of Kim's birth mother, May, Paula So Man Siu helps us to understand why she feels she has to give up her daughter for her to have a better chance in life. Her own story is heartbreaking, the long hours she is forced to work make things difficult and it is hinted at that her husband has done a runner. Finally, Danielle Phillips is sister, friend, and foil to Kim, a part that increases in importance as the story plays out and, in all the characters she plays she's very engaging with great comic timing.

All over in an hour, full of ideas, energy and imagination, Ghost Girl // Gwei Mui 鬼妹 is a terrific, thought-provoking show. And check out the Camden People's Theatre website. There's a lot going on there, it's easy to get to (love the videos that walk you to the venue from three nearby stations), prices are very competitive and the place is very welcoming.