Friday, July 18, 2014

'The Last Days of Limehouse' at Limehouse Town Hall, 17th July 2014

Try to imagine Brick Lane without a curryhouse in sight.  It's a strange vision.  Yet this is exactly what happened to Limehouse.  The area used to be synonymous with its Chinese population, mythologised by Victorians as a hazy warren of opium dens populated by sinister Oriental stereotypes with a penchant for luring innocent English girls into a degraded life of sin.  These stories were a load of racist rubbish, yet they magnetically drew curious visitors to them.  Tourists would take special buses out to experience their first tastes of Chinese cooking and bask in exotic novelty.

The reality of Chinese Limehouse was broadly similar to any enclave of new immigrants: a self-supportive, tightly knit community that establishes themselves in a somewhat downmarket area and runs a limited range of businesses - in Limehouse's case generally laundries and restaurants.  As the years ticked by and bombs fell, the buildings of Limehouse degraded and after the War it was decided that something needed to be done.  The London County Council proposed to bulldoze the area, rehouse the remaining Chinese families and build modern flats.  They were as good as their word - so thorough in their urban clearance that the only traces of the near-hundred year link with the Chinese community are a couple of street names and a tin dragon statue.  

Most Londoners probably assume Chinatown is where it's always been, tucked in Disneyland isolation in the tourist-friendly West End.  Yellow Earth's The Last Days of Limehouse aims to correct some of that, recreating the end of Chinese Limehouse and ruminating on what the memory of the place is worth.

Old Limehouse
Staged promenade style within the pleasantly dilapidated Limehouse Town Hall, this play that keeps the audience on their toes.  Literally.  The action takes places at different locales around the Hall, all within one room.  At one end there's a recreation of a 1960s Chinese restaurants, in one corner a sitting room and a dinner table at the other end.  Over the next 90 minutes this rather minimal set becomes host to a cast of characters that feel like ghosts haunting the space.

As the actors move around the room the crowd bustles after them, constantly moving and regrouping around the actors.  As they move the crowd we part like the red sea, the unpredictable nature of the play meaning you never quite know where the next scene is going to pop up.  One moment you're standing on tip-toes trying to peer through a forest of people to catch what's going on, the next you're up close and personal with the cast, able to see every bead of sweat upon their face.  The overall effect is to make us into invisible yet involved eavesdroppers, reminding me of Punchdrunk's The Drowned Man. 

The narrative is centred around the arrival of Eileen Cunningham (Amanda Maud).  She was born in Limehouse where her father ran a restaurant, though left at the age of six when her family emigrated to New York.  Returning as a woman of means she's dismayed to find that the Limehouse of 1958 barely resembles her memories.  Determined to preserve the character of the area she launches an 'urban preservation' campaign, trying her best to rope in as many supporters as possible.

The problem is that most of the remaining British-Chinese residents understand all too well the reasons for the council's decision.  They live in the decaying remnants of Victorian housing, without indoor toilets, heating and with open drains - maybe one tiny step away from a genuine slum.  They accept that the area is their home but have their eyes on a rosier, modern future.  The battle is thus between sentimentalism and practicality - and Mrs Cunningham isn't doing a particularly good job of arguing for the former.

How the Victorians liked to imagine Limehouse.
The play's clear vision and careful judgment shines through from the first scene.  This isn't some misty-eyed nostalgia trip into the past, rather an examination of the evolution of urban communities.  Central to the story are Johnny and Iris Wong (Matthew Leonhart & Gabby Wong), second generation immigrants and restaurant proprietors.  As soon as we meet them we instantly understand them - quite simply, they're Londoners.  They talk like Londoners, behave like Londoners and have London aspirations (namely to move somewhere north). Late in the play, Johnny crisply boils down his position on Limehouse to one simple statement "This place has served its purpose."

It's difficult to argue otherwise.  The East End has been a safe haven for immigrants for most of its history, both the Huguenot weavers and the Jewish community having moved on to make way for new waves of Londoners.  Some day the current Bangladeshi community will move on too.  What The Last Days of Limehouse understands is that the end of Chinatown was just part of a natural urban process - fighting it will turn you into King Canute.  

But Miss Cunningham, though she's trying to fight back the tide, has a decent point underneath all her half-baked schemes and insulting bluster.  She argues that we should be able to see who came before us; the cities should be developed like a coral reef, with organisms building around what came before rather than wholesale demolition. As someone who gets a geeky historical thrill spotting some weathered piece of old London jutting up beside an anonymous, glassy skyscraper, it's hard for me to disagree.

By the closing scenes The Last Days of Limehouse has concluded that while bricks and mortar may be cleared away, the spirit of the place lingers in the memories and in the children of the inhabitants.  As one touching scene near the end points out, the descendants of those that scratched a living in this cobbled streets might now gaze down at the site of their shops from within Canary Wharf - the embodiment of the immigration success story.

The Last Days of Limehouse is relevant not only to the Chinese London community wanting a glimpse of their roots but to anyone remotely interested in the way groups of people disperse and accumulate around the contours of cityscapes.  It's an excellent play, well-performed, interestingly staged, funny, melancholy and touching all at once.  Highly recommended!

'The Last Days of Limehouse' is at Limehouse Town Hall until 3rd August 2014.  Tickets available here.

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