Rice!, Wayang Kitchen: food-fuelled theatre experience

 This article was commissioned by The Upcoming, where it appeared for the first time.

Simmering, spooning, sprinkling: simple gestures and key ingredients have the power to connect one’s present identity to memories and traditions. Amongst familiar flavours, family rituals and personal twists on old recipes, the bubbling pots and pans become intimate friends, in the company of which a migrant could easily rekindle the smells and chatter of home. Wayang Kitchen theatre company stirs these food-fuelled sentiments into the story as we follow Connie, a Chinese-Malaysian-born girl whose relocation to the UK starts her on a path that gradually veers away from the one traced by her parents and grandparents.

One hour ahead of Rice!, the attendants are invited to join a cooking class led by Set the Tables, live streaming from Kuala Lumpur, to prepare congee (rice porridge) and tea eggs. The room is warmed up by the spices, the sizzling anchovies and the sweet steam of the rice, before the camera turns on to reveal grown-up Connie (Michelle Wen Lee) and then swiftly switches to young Connie (Amanda Ang) as she reads a thanksgiving letter to her mother. The protagonist recollects childhood episodes that reveal the beginning of a journey with traces of her Asian upbringing, but which already foretell a movement towards more westernised soil. As Connie goes on to make a career in the entertainment industry, questions arise and confusion creeps into different aspects of her life, from her inability to blend in convincingly within a certain ethnic community to her conversations with housemates.

The ingredients box is definitely a valuable add-on for the show. That certain sense of detachment that is inevitably felt when watching through a screen fades away as the dish is prepared and the videos of occasional participants turn on. Given that the production entails simultaneous live streaming from both the UK and Malaysia, it’s perfect timing for lunch on this side of the world, and dinner on the other – and the bowl full of rice on the table creates a comfortable setting in which to begin the experience.

The young Connie broadcasts a vivid image straight away, while adult Connie’s role within the bigger picture doesn’t seem as clear until midway through the performance. Significant lines – such as the invisibility of migrants within the fast-paced British culture or the filtered reality of social platforms – are unfortunately often interspersed with more recurrent tropes relating to Brexit and integration. The script would have benefitted from a deeper insight into Connie’s background, offering more of the contrasts between her present mind and the influence of her grandmother – as well as the duty of marriage, which is effectively touched upon in one scene.

Just as the separate grains combine to form a satisfying bowl of congee, Rice! could have been tastier by incorporating all of the different elements into one single dish. However, a variety of colourful segments, together with a sassy music playlist that nicely shapes the show, all combine to create a pleasant performance.

- Read the article on The Upcoming -

Dates: 20-21 and 27-28 February 2021

Venue: Omnibus Theatre online