Under the Umbrella is a play about pressure. Pressure to get married, pressure to be successful, pressure to be a good daughter, a good friend, a good citizen and, most importantly of all, a good wife.
Written by Amy Ng and directed by Justine Themen, the play combines interpretative dance and an intricate story to explore clashes between different cultures and the conflicts that can occur when tradition pushes against progress.
The story begins with Wei (Mei Mac) waking up to a phone call in the early hours of the morning from her mother Dong (Charlotte Chiew) and grandmother (Minhee Yeo) in China. It is Wei’s 27th birthday and she is officially now a shengnu, a leftover woman. She has been busy studying for her PHD in the UK, and her family back home are now desperate for her to be married and have children. They tell her that she must come home for Chinese New Year and she knows that they will use the visit to find her a husband.
Wei’s flatmate Lucy (Laura Tipper) will soon be turning 30 and is also single excepting an on-off relationship with Peter, who Wei hates. Lucy’s mother appears to be quite unstable and takes money regularly from her daughter. The two friends therefore enjoy a very strong relationship enhanced by their irritation of their dysfunctional families.
But what Wei doesn’t know is that her mother is trying to find her a husband at the Marriage Market. These markets involve parents attaching their children’s dating profiles to umbrellas and trying to find suitable matches. But Wei’s age and busy career make her an unattractive proposition for a wife so her mother has trouble finding anyone who is interested in introducing their son to her.
As well as being under severe pressure to get married, Wei is also struggling with her PHD, risking the loss of her funding and visa, which would result in her having to return to China permanently. The feeling of desperation in the play is palpable. The burden of needing to succeed in her career coupled with her family’s insistence that she finds a husband imminently, creates an oppressive atmosphere.
Minhee Yeo double roles as Wei’s PHD supervisor Dr Zhang, which is an interesting move which gives a face to the pressure on Wei to move forward in all aspects of her life. As the demands on Wei grow, so does her resistance and it quickly becomes clear that she can’t win, whatever her choices.
This is a very real story with moments that will make you laugh and cry. The all female cast present a fascinating look at the relationships between women. The strong but volatile friendship between Wei and Lucy is particularly interesting, especially when looking at the differences between Chinese and British culture which are personified in Mac’s performance.
There are a number of dances in the play which are an interesting addition to the action. These are extended to the set changes which are all done by the actors in a rhythmic style. Umbrellas feature strongly in these dances so the meaning that they hold in the play, as an advertising board, and so much more, are never far from the audience’s mind.
The theme of time is often used in drama to create tension and this show is full of deadlines. From the ominous shadow of death, to university deadlines, ticking clocks constantly plague Wei and her panic becomes increasingly tangible as the show progresses.
Under the Umbrella explores a number of interesting issues including China’s historic one child policy and sex selective abortion. Flexible and well rounded performances make this unique show a very memorable and thought provoking piece of theatre.
Under the Umbrella is being performed at the Unity until 23rd March 2019. Tickets are available here https://www.unitytheatreliverpool.co.uk/basket/843-underumbrella-19.html
Reviewer: Donna M Day
Reviewed: 21st March 2019
North West End Rating: ★★★★