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22 June, 2021

Great ideas but I was expecting much more

Anchuli Felicia King’s White Pearl addresses issues of casual racism and corporate culture in a 90-minute show.

I loved the ideas behind the play. A black comedy about a whitening cream is an ideal setup for considering issues of racism.

I expected more. Some thought-provoking ideas behind this 90-minute show, with some good cameo performances and a slick set. But not for me, and I am struggling to think of who I could recommend this one to.

The plot centres on a look ‘behind the scenes’ in the fictional Singaporean offices of Clearday Cosmetics, as the team reacts to the new TV commercial that has gone viral for all the wrong reasons.

An advertisement that might be considered to work in one particular region — but would be offensive in most — is also an interesting route to consider regional vs local and national vs global.

And having an office of staff drawn from Japan, India, Singapore, China, UK and USA is a great way in which to challenge ideas of a single pan-Asian culture – or even one way of speaking English.

The set is a definite highlight of this show, complete with professional advertising videos and trendy neon. Glossy, slick, and beautifully lit (Jeremy Allen [Designer], Damien Cooper [Lighting Designer], Anchuli Felicia King [Projection Designer]).

The stereotypes were well-observed and often beautifully played. Highlights were the performances by Nicole Milinkovic (Built Suttikul) and Mayu Iwasaki (Ruki Minami).

The development of the relationship between Soo-Jin Park (Deborah An) and Xiao Chen (Lin Yin) was convincingly portrayed, leading to a believable challenge of the dominant Priya Singh (Vaishnavi Suryaprakash).

Matthew Pearce’s Marcel Benoit, the only male character, was sufficiently needy and a believable foil to Milinkovic (and with an entertaining European accent).

However, I came away feeling very disappointed. The script had next to no external crisis management, as staff were portrayed as concentrating on the internal ‘who will get fired’ issues — which for me meant that the rise and fall of Singh needed to be more believable, paced, and nuanced.

Director Priscilla Jackman had the show running at full tilt when the pace needed more variation.

And I just didn’t find it very funny.

Some members of the audience found moments of humour, particularly when picking up on cultural references or being shocked at the behaviour of the all-female Clearday staff.

Cheryl Ho (Sunny Lee) relished the opportunity to play the manipulative jester role, as the self-selecting number two to Singh, and certainly attracted a number of chuckles from the Monday night audience.

But I was expecting much more.