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The World of Extreme Happiness at The Shed

| Theatre | 18/10/2013

Katie Leung (Sunny) and company The World of Extreme Happiness c. Richard H Smith
Katie Leung (Sunny) and company, The World of Extreme Happiness c. Richard H Smith

Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s play The World of Extreme Happiness mixed toilet humour, upbeat techno music and neon lighting to transport the audience in the Shed at the National Theatre to a toy factory in urban China. In this environment, the dreams of China’s youth soon flicker and die out altogether. Michael Longhurst’s portrayal of dire working conditions, corruption and police brutality puts my post-graduation career indecision firmly into perspective.

The play follows Sunny (Katie Leung) who is dissatisfied by her dull, stifled life in rural China. After traveling to the city she finds work as a cleaner, where she hits an equally impenetrable glass ceiling in her attempts at promotion. She is told to keep her aspirations low and her expectations even lower.

Ming Ming (Vera Chok) takes Sunny along to self-improvement classes where they learn exactly how smiling, shaking hands and speaking in a very deep voice will boost success. Chok’s frantic positive energy suits the role well, convincing us that she really does work a twelve-hour shift before going to class.

When interviewed for a promotion however, Ming Ming’s self-empowering pep talks prove to be as useless as her phony Harvard degree. While we laugh at her desperate last-ditch attempts to convince the vice president of the firm of her values, there is nothing funny about the suicidal aftermath of a worker who is ‘out of capital’.

In Ya-Chu Cowhig’s hard-hitting play violent death is ever present. While regular worker suicides are referred to as ‘accidents’, we witness the heart wrenching anguish of Aunty Wang (Sarah Lam) whose son is murdered by the state. Furthermore the desperate Maoist recollections of cleaning manager Old Lao (Junix Inocian) place current hardships in the context of decades of oppression to the tune of  “you don’t know you were born”.

The factory owners’ journey from impoverished peasants to wealthy metropolitans sees them lose friends and gain shareholders. After joining Sunny in the city, her brother Paul (Chris Lew Kum Hoi) bemoans his invisibility; at least in the countryside people looked him in the face. Lew Kum Hoi’s character sees the biggest transformation in the play, from childish playfulness in act one to bitterness as the urban reality shatters his dreams. In a beautifully choreographed 3D-gaming scene, Paul and Sunny trudge along, shooting zombies while Paul seethes at his sister.

When Sunny finally gets her promotion it is at some cost – she must portray the firm as a utopia of social welfare at a film premier in the City’s Hall of the People. Despite a promised ‘front desk’ job if Sunny’s speech goes well, the lie she is asked to broadcast proves to be one abuse too many.

Michael Longhurst’s very enjoyable production makes full use of fast-paced urban music and bright neon lighting to embody the promise-of-success drug to which the play’s young workers are addicted. Yet even as the mantra, ‘fame honour wealth power!’ echoes around the auditorium, the brutal reality of an oppressed, friend-less existence is painfully apparent.

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