Review: The One at Ensemble Theatre

The One, by Vanessa Bates, doesn’t know what kind of story it wants to be.

Directed by Darren Yap, the latest Australian play at the Ensemble Theatre, struggles with muddled storytelling and tonal dissonance. Marketed as an upbeat family comedy, The One is not as funny as it thinks it is. However, it’s also not as emotionally compelling as it’s trying to be. What results is a disappointing production that takes a promising premise— Malaysian-Australian families reckoning with their mixed-race identities in a racist country—and fails to live up to it.

Adult siblings Mel (Angie Diaz) and Eric (Shan-Ree Tan) are nervous. Their mother Helen (Gabrielle Chan) is visiting them in Australia and insisting on throwing herself a big birthday dinner. But Helen’s chosen venue— a chinese restaurant from the kids’ childhood— brings up a lot of bad memories of growing up in a racist 1980s Australia as mixed-race kids born in Malaysia. Mel and Eric, who have always been competitive about winning their mother’s love, are both hiding something from their mum to protect her. The siblings secretly want to know the truth about the father who abandoned them, Eric wants to finally come out to Helen, and Mel’s been dodging her long-term partner Cal’s (Damien Strouthos) attempts to propose. Needless to say: there’s a lot of tension simmering between the family members, and this planned birthday dinner is threatening to bring all these tensions to the surface.

Accomplished designer Nick Fry has made great use of the tall conical shape of Kirribilli’s Ensemble Theatre to create a realistic looking Chinese restaurant set. The lighting designs by Verity Hampson are particularly good, allowing the set to shift locations and time periods. Video designs, projected onto the set wall, are used thoughtfully and sparingly, a refreshing change from mainstage theatre’s tendency to overuse the technology.

The biggest problem with The One is that the cast, the director, and the writer all seem to on different pages about what kind of story they’re in. 

In the first act, the ensemble (especially Angie Diaz who is ostensibly the lead, but also unfortunately, the weakest performer), seem to be pitching their performance as if they were in a broad comedy, but the script is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, so the choice feels odd. The big, broad comedic tone that Diaz is aiming for doesn’t suit the play’s more low-key comic sensibilities, and it definitely doesn’t suit the more serious moments of Bates’ script, like when Eric opens up about being the victim of racist bullying as a child. Considering that Tan, Chan and Strouthos deliver much more restrained performances which better align with the play’s mix of drama and light comedy, it feels odd that director Yap let Diaz run wild with this misjudged performance.

Photo © Prudence Upton

But it’s not just an acting and directing issue. The writing feels like Bates is oscillating between genres, too indecisive to make a decision. The first act is relatively grounded in realism— a slow but light-hearted domestic comedy about family, identity and relationships that also touches on the sibling’s struggles with feeling torn between two cultures. The second act tries to go big— introducing levels of farce with a lip-sync choreographed drag number, and an absurd distraction into horror.

Ultimately the themes Bates and Yap are trying to grasp at—racism, colourism, the struggles of mixed-race immigrants to grapple with dual identities—are important and timely. The play’s references to the pandemic serve as an important reminder of the cruel and senseless hatred that was directed at the Asian community at that time, both in Australia and internationally.

This is a topical play about important issues that deserve to be discussed in 2022. However, the director and most notably the writer, really fumbled the execution. I hope that The One can be developed into a more cohesive script in future. But for right now, this feels like a play not yet ready for an audience.

Jo Bradley

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