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Review: ‘Miss Peony’ explores themes of identity, geo-politics and the darker aspects of the pageant industry

Growing up Asian-Australian is a journey of many varied yet identical paths, and these differences and similarities are adeptly woven together in acclaimed writer Michelle Law’s latest theatrical production of Miss Peony, currently showing at the Belvoir Theatre. 

Lily (Stephanie Jack) is a 20-something ABC, fed up with life in Sydney and about to embark on a new adventure in London. Her poh poh (grandma) Adeline, who has just passed away, comes back in spirit form to convince Lily to sign up for the annual Miss Peony Chinese community beauty pageant. Adeline (expertly portrayed by veteran Gabrielle Chan) was Miss Peony’s first ever winner in the 1960s and wishes for her granddaughter to continue her legacy, but Lily scoffs at the idea and relevance of an outdated and sexist beauty pageant. However, in order to appease her grandmother’s spirit and on condition that she will stop ‘haunting’ her, Lily reluctantly agrees. These opening scenes, aptly ‘surtitled’ as Lily and Adeline’s spirit communicate in different languages (English and Cantonese respectively), will strike a chord for many Asian-Australians: who hasn’t experienced this language disconnect with the older generation? And who wouldn’t kill to be able to have such deep and meaningful discussions with their elders beyond the dining table?

Image via Belvoir St Theatre Facebook page

Lily’s journey through the competition, under the tutelage of her grandmother, becomes a journey of self discovery and reconnection with her roots. Along the way, she forms a bond with her fellow contestants Joy (Shirong Wu), Marcy (Deborah Faye Lee) and Sabrina (Mabel Li), who span the diversity of Chinese-Australian stereotypes as, respectively, FOB international student to money-hungry second gen to full blown Westie ABG. This trio of supporting roles carries the momentum and their antics provide plenty of comic relief from some of the heavier themes like sexual harassment and homophobia. Special mention goes to Mabel Li’s scene-stealing rendition of the loud-mouthed but loveable Asian ‘wog’ Sabrina, who has the show’s most hilarious lines and is the highlight performance from a strong ensemble. Despite the caricatures, however, enough wiggle room is given in the script that allows the characters to reveal their layers beyond the slapstick. In one of the scenes where the girls are eating Chinese hotpot together, a warm camaraderie is exuded that ties in their shared struggles despite their different backgrounds – though, in the real world, when do FOBs and ABCs ever get together like this?

Amidst the frivolity of the pageant theatrics, the darker aspects of the industry are also explored when one of the girls is being sexually harassed by a sponsor, and Adeline’s attitude comes full circle when the repression of her own experiences finally comes to light. Contemporary geopolitical themes are also touched on: Adeline’s worshipping of British culture echoes Hong Kongers of her generation and contrasts sharply with Marcy’s mainland Chinese view of post-colonial Hong Kong. And, of course, Lily’s own evolution – from avoiding her own people and only dating white guys to befriending the other contestants and kissing pageant host Zhen Hua (Larry Emdur-esque Charles Wu) – reflects the gamut of our own turbulent struggles with heritage, from self-loathing to pride.

The backdrop of the pageant competition allows costume and set designer Jonathan Hindmarsh to ramp up the camp, from the retro Canto pop to the glittering disco chic decor, giving the show an almost nightclub vibe at times – in one musical scene, Charles Wu is able to showcase his amazing vocals while the girls parade around him in ever changing sparkly outfits. But it is Michelle’s writing, though, that ultimately shines brightest – as a show written by an Asian-Australian for Asian-Australians – from car dealerships in Hurstville to dental clinics in Chatswood – there’s an insider joke for every Asian-Australian Sydney-sider!

Miss Peony is currently showing at the Belvoir Theatre in Sydney from 1-29 July, and at the Arts Centre in Melbourne from 2-20 August.

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