I was recently invited to Stratford East’s Theatre to see what was touted as the world’s first British-Chinese musical, Takeaway, following a week in the life of a young man stuck behind a Chinese takeaway counter, obsessed with Tom Jones and dreaming of better things. Like, the chance to be the New Chinese Tom Jones. Oh, and despite being a dullard stuck behind said counter, he somehow manages to keep two girlfriends going – by lying to them, mostly.
However, the title needs revising. For a start, it really needs an exclamation mark at the end – when a musical set in a Chinese takeaway starts with a gong, you know you’re not exactly going to get a po-faced reverent look at the takeaway industry, or the mysterious people who work behind the counter.
Which is fine – the world isn’t exactly screaming for a serious dramatic look at the life of the person behind the counter – but given that a good proportion of the audience are likely to be British-Chinese, are you really sure you want to have a cliched Chinese chef character, a song mocking the fresh Chinese immigrant and a moment in which characters literally go “ching-chong ching-chong long tong” at each other? That is really going to raise the defences of the Chinese segment of the audience, even if it does provoke a very brief ripple of laughter from the rest of the audience? Race relations have such a long way to go…
The plot is a tad cliched to say the least, with a protagonist trapped in his dull life seeking a way out. Which I suppose is an advantage in that it’s saying to British-Chinese people: “Look! Your problems are the same as most people’s! Get on with it!”. But it does mean killer moments (whether they be plot or entertainment-related) are few and far between. One of which is the arrival of the cliched guardian angel, but mainly for the sheer pre-posterousness of it, coupled with the fact they just about manage to get away it.
Some of the songs deserve credit for being bombastically funny – like Golden Balls – but otherwise would remain forgettable if it weren’t for the sheer zeal of the cast in giving their all, especially Gabby Wong, Natasha Jayetileke, Gloria Onitiri. And it’s always good to see Chinese performers on stage, especially from the older generation who have literally hung on in there. It’s just a shame better material for them didn’t exist.
Ultimately, will you leave this musical with a smile on your face? Well, assuming you don’t elect to leave early – as a significant proportion of the audience did the night I was there – then, no. You’ll get a puzzled scowl instead as you wonder who it was aimed at. Still, at least there’s a Chinese buffet opposite the theatre.