With her 60th birthday just around the corner, Diana (Diana Lin) is excited: her three kids are coming home to celebrate. She only has one precondition – that her birthday gift be a surprise. And surprise it is, but not the type she’s expecting…
Benjamin Law’s playwriting debut is an effervescent take on that shameful habit we or someone in the family (let’s face it, there’s always someone) suffer from – the compulsion to hoard. Diana’s house is negatively overflowing with all kinds of wacky, unhygienic mementoes, from Princess Di memorabilia to vintage maternity wear, mangled barbie dolls to expired period pads. Her eldest daughter Teresa (Fiona Choi), bossy and practical, is desperate to do something about it, and enlists the help of her siblings: jetsetting narcissist and social influencer Natalie (Michelle Lim Davidson), and budding socialist and closet-gay Toby (Charles Wu), who have returned from afar under the guise of celebrating her birthday.
Initially, the siblings seem like cliched caricatures playing off each other. Teresa is the typical Chinese big sister – rational, disciplined and not afraid to butt heads with her mother in her quest to clean up their family home. Wayward middle child and self-proclaimed ‘favourite’ Natalie is a materialistic airhead whose main reason for coming home seems to be about capturing opportunistic ‘Insta-moments’ (with the appropriate filter and hashtags of course). And then there’s pot-smoking social worker Toby, whose rambling diatribes against the evils of capitalism are enough to put anyone off Twitter. Even Teresa’s builder husband (Max Brown) – true blue Aussie-Vietnamese bogan and negative gearing guru – is not hard to pigeonhole. But as they gradually unfurl, we see the sibling rivalry develop beyond the usual stereotypes into nuanced characters who, like most migrant kids, have had to cope being wedged between two contrasting cultures. Teresa was forced to play the piano as a child (like many of us) because Diana gave up on her dream of becoming a concert pianist – the remnants of those crushed dreams being the broken piano that takes centre stage. Natalie, despite her superficial tendencies and obsession with social media, is shown to be an astute money earner who provided for her mother’s cancer treatment and Toby’s schooling expenses. And Toby’s socialist streak and emo lifestyle still do not preclude him from being closeted to his family about his sexuality. All these revelations show that, behind their individualistic and westernised facades, Chinese values of filial duty and family unity still underpin the children’s cores.
Diana’s character, with her drama queen antics and Cantonese monologues, is brought to life vividly by Chinese-Australian actress Diana Lin (Awkwafina’s mother in The Farewell). The irony of Diana being a professional house cleaner whilst seemingly unable to clean up her own house is not lost on anyone either. Her inability to let go of things, when pared down, reveals itself as a physical manifestation of the psychological scars from a past marred by loss – from a philandering husband who abandoned the family, to losing a baby at birth – a shattering secret that threatens to tear the family apart. And despite the play being punctuated with dubiously un-Benjamin Law-like Asian jokes (Diana’s secret to her cooking? ‘Love and MSG’), the broader themes of family life’s ups and downs, of loss, grief and ultimately, resilience, guide the narrative to a satisfying conclusion by the story’s end.
As an Asian-Australian child of the 80s, like Benjamin Law, I could not help but see snippets of myself in all of Diana’s children – from Teresa’s need to mother the whole family, Natalie’s mediatory role between her domineering sister and stubborn mother, through to Toby’s annoying naivety as a left-wing firebrand. Many of us, too, would see parts of our own mothers reflected in Diana, with her struggles with English, over-protectiveness of her children and propensity to gloss over difficult issues.
In a media landscape that is still largely devoid of Asian-Australian faces, it is utterly refreshing to see not one, not two, but an entire cast of characters that are wholly Asian-Australian and three-dimensional. I’d highly recommend it to my fellow Asian-Australians.
Torch The Place is currently playing at the Arts Centre Melbourne.