Review: Ian Henery’s “Chinese Labour Corps”

Please note performances of Chinese Labour Corps have now ended.

Chinese labourers were treated badly during the First World War but it’s difficult to think of any group that wasn’t, including the British Tommy. That is true, but equally true is that some were treated worse than others. On this Ian Henery and the Blue Orange Theatre’s presentation “Chinese Labour Corps” certainly pulls no punches. But there is far more being told here than uncomfortable history.

Humanity on show.

Stories unfold through the musings of four members of the British army’s Chinese Labour Corps, but include some stories from the French equivalent. Historical purists may take issue with this artistic licence, we don’t. It allows for a full-perspective telling of the Chinese labourers’ story.

Woven into the unfolding (contested) historical narrative are personal stories showing the joys and sorrows, highs and lows for these workers. The portrayal by the cast and producer of their lives is remarkable to the point they become ‘real’ people with whom the audience are not only invested, but feel an affinity, despite the chasm of time and circumstance. It’s a very successful transmission of the humanity afforded Chinese labourers in Ian Ian Henery’s script, something that is so often missing when their story is told.

The human condition is explored and exposed though recounting of the labourers’ homesickness, the longing to see loved ones, the resolve to fix relationships and the tenacity of their dreams for the future. Two episodes desrve particular mention. The sense of euphoria when the labourers’ get news that they are going home is palpable.  But  the depiction of the heartache of losing a loved is a tour de force.

Depression-inducing?

If this is beginning to sound like ninety minutes of depression-inducing theatre be assured it certainly isn’t.  Despite the anguish, sorrow and despair that deflate, a dry wit observes the comic and the absurd, and so the situation never seems insurmountable nor beyond hope.

Ian Ian Henery masterfully provides an insight which carries us beyond their desperate circumstances, cleverly lifted by poignant, perfectly timed humour. He demonstrates the remarkable capacity of the human spirit to persevere, for hope to endure. Ultimately the message of the play is not one of injustices or despair, but rather of the resilience and indomitable spirit of the Chinese people.

Chinese Labour Corps is a significant and valuable addition to the telling of the Chinese labourer’s story.

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