It was a good time to launch a play called “This isn’t Romance”. Helium-filled red valentine’s day hearts floated from the balcony of the Soho Theatre, encouraging the passing trade. But people turning up on the Friday night (its second night) expecting to buy tickets were disappointed. It was a sell-out performance, and deserved to be.
In-sook Chappell’s debut play tells the story of a Korean woman, Miso. Anyone who spends a few years away from their native land feels like a stranger when they return. Miso is no exception, but with her the return “home” has added significance. Orphaned at an early age, she was adopted by an English couple and moved to Southend-on-Sea at the age of seven, leaving behind her younger brother. They never said goodbye to each other. Now aged 32, Miso returns to Seoul to find her roots.
“All the Holt kids … come back, … have this sick need to come to Korea, to find the street their mothers left them on, to do the day trip to the orphanage,”
…Miso is told by a fellow adoptee. But the difference with Miso is that it was not her mother that did the leaving: it was she who left her little brother behind. The guilt of having done this has held her back in life, while her brother has grown up on the fringes of society, similarly never belonging. Thrown out of the orphanage aged 16, he has spent his time brooding on his loneliness and his feeling of hatred for his sister for having abandoned him. Yet the ties of blood remain, and their intense feelings about the betrayal of their separation both attract and repel.
The opening scene is possibly the most difficult to absorb – maybe because we’re still early in the play’s run. We find Miso in a small office with an interpreter, waiting to meet someone for the first time. A tall, broodingly handsome fellow comes in, and Miso soon finds herself in tears and with nothing to say.
“I’ve been talking to him for years and now I don’t know what to say”
We realise that this is the brother that she left behind. But we need to suspend a little bit of disbelief, because while Miso is played by an American Asian actress, her brother is played by an Eastern European. Once, however, we are over this hurdle we can explore their feelings for each other and for themselves. Emotions turn from hatred and resentment to love, but a much stronger undercurrent of self-loathing emerges at the end, or earlier when Miso attempts to get money to extricate her brother from his obligations to some gangsters.
This play isn’t for the delicate. Plenty of uses of the “C” word may offend, while one of the more explicit scenes may cause a touch of embarrassment to someone who has led a sheltered life. But the marketing material contains adequate warnings. Despite the elements of coarseness and brutality, this is a tender play which will stay with you.
The author, In-sook Chappell, was herself adopted from Korea and brought up in Essex. Listen to her voice on the trailer video on the Soho Theatre website and it’s as English as it comes. But she’s not cut off from what’s going on in Korea – the soundtrack heard in Itaewon’s “In & Out Bunny Club” is Jewelry’s 2008 hit One more time:
With strong and believable performances from all three main actors – brother, sister and seedy English businessman – and with a small, intimate performance space, this play packs plenty of emotional punch. The cast possibly doesn’t get the ovation they deserve, because at the end of the play one wants to sit in silence to absorb what one has just seen rather than burst into applause. But this is a play worth going back to see a second time. I did.
Postscript 1: The second time round the awkwardness of the first scene is more natural, more explicable. The play’s symmetry becomes apparent, while the irony of the soundtrack – the 사랑해s at the least tender moments – can be appreciated. So go a second time.
Postscript 2 – other reviews:
- Guardian, 18 Feb
- Times, 18 Feb
- What’s on Stage, 18 Feb
- London Theatre Blog, 18 Feb
- Official London Theatre Guide, 18 Feb
This isn’t Romance runs at the Soho Theatre until 7 March