REVIEW: K-Box by Ra Chapman

Lucy has just broken up with her long-term boyfriend, someone her parents both loved, and she’s staying with them for a while in country Victoria where she grew up. When she gets home, her parents are off to play bowls late at night, to save some of the old folks from getting heatstroke during the day. They leave her to get settled in, though she will have to sleep on the couch because her old room has been turned into the ultimate craft factory for her mum.

The opening scene of K-Box is filled with wry domestic comedy, a classic prodigal child return and a clash of generations. Lucy expects she will be welcomed home with open arms, forgetting that her parents have their own lives now, just as she does. But soon, she falls into her old ways in this old house – though she cannot find any of her stuff, except for an old box she used to play with.

And the other thing about Lucy is, she was adopted from Korea when she was four and she has never really connected with her homeland. Except in a kind of cringe-worthy way, when her white parents dress up in traditional Korean clothing to celebrate “gotcha day”, the day they brought her back to Australia.

Oh, and also – she’s dating a Korean guy named Kim, who is a K-Pop star. This revelation is a huge surprise to her parents, who didn’t think she was interested in dating Asian men. And that’s not the last of the secrets uncovered in this clever new play from writer Ra Chapman, which opened at Malthouse Theatre last night.

At the centre of the action is Susanna Qian, giving a wonderfully complicated, spiky performance as Lucy. The character goes through so much in the 100-minute play (that flies by) and she’s equally captivating when she’s having fun with her parents and when she’s yelling at them. This story is not just about the conflict between Lucy and her parents but about a struggle within, which Lucy only discovers on returning home.

Maude Davey and Syd Brisbane give grand ocker Mum & Dad energy throughout, easy with the sly jokes at their daughter’s expense and bristling when she eventually starts to argue back. These are the kind of parents you know (or you have!) that have worked hard, treated their child well and have never – not once – questioned how they have raised her. The blissful ignorance is both funny and uncomfortable; both performers can turn from comedy to drama in a blink of an eye.

Jeffrey Liu is allowed be larger than life as the K-Pop star who struts in and turns everything upside-down with a performance unlike anything George and Shirley have ever seen. This leads dad to break out a karaoke version of “Kung Fu Fighting” and Lucy starts to see the contradictions in her life.

Romanie Harper’s simple but effective set, a series of rooms, one behind the other, appears welcoming at first, but becomes claustrophobic as the drama unfolds. The backyard is just a strip of paving stones with overhanging gum leaves – like a moat, protecting Lucy’s parents from the outside world. But it’s outside the house where some real truths are finally revealed.

The true joy of Ra Chapman’s writing is how she takes a well-worn premise and digs in deeper and deeper, mining for comedy gold and some fresh dramatic revelations. What is it like to grow up looking Korean in the whitest part of Australia? What memories does she have of her birth country? How Korean is she really? How has Australian society shaped her view of the world and herself? It’s a rich vein of story and character to explore. There are things in this play I've never heard articulated so well before, which makes everything feel fresh, if not revelatory.

Director Bridget Balodis knows when to bring things in tight and when to let everyone get wild and a bit out of hand. This balance of comedy and drama is a tricky thing to get right and Balodis has guided the production with a sure hand, allowing us to go from that early wry humour to some bleak dramatic turns by the end. Wonderful stuff.

K-Box is a smart, thoughtful exploration of cross-racial adoption that knows a clash of cultures can be ridiculous and also deadly serious. Go for the K-Pop performance and come away with much to think about.

- Keith Gow, Theatre First.

K-Box is on at the Malthouse until September 18th.

Photos by Phoebe Powell.