Shangri-La** (Finborough Theatre)

Posted: July 15, 2016 in Theatre

Shangri-La-e1468560401322This review was originally written for The Review Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

In James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, Shangri-La was a fictional valley described as “mystical” and “harmonious”. Amy Ng sets her debut full-length play in a real Shangri-La and then questions whether anything in the world can be considered authentic any more.

Set in 2014 and jumping back a dozen or so years, the play considers the impact of tourism upon a small part of China’s Yunnam Province in the foothills of the Himalayas. The area was re-named after Hilton’s location deliberately to encourage tourism, but now finds that intrusions are ruining traditional ways of life irreparably. Ng suggests that even taking a photograph can pollute a landscape and that an outsider witnessing an ancient rite can demean it for ever.

Ng makes her points through four characters. Bunny (Julia Sandiford) is a talented photographer, pressed into working as a tour guide by Nelson (Kevin Shen). His western education has taught him to spot a business opportunity and he establishes a company specialising in “sustainable travel”. Sylvia (Rosie Thomson), a wealthy New Yorker, represents the new invading force, itching to sip Chinese tea, experience tantric meditation and see the spectacular views. Karma (Andrew Koji) is a local entrepreneur who exploits tourists and produces a good drop of Cabernet Sauvignon on the side, but he soon swaps traditional dress for Italian suits and comes to resemble mafioso in the process.

The play’s chief problems are that none of these characters is fully fleshed out and little human drama arises from their interactions. The only humour to be found comes at the expense of a crass American tourist, which is a pretty easy target. The result is that the characters are little more than voices for the writer’s ideas and director Charlotte Westenra does not find a way to give the play much life.

The writer also alludes to political issues, frequently referring to the Chinese as an occupying power, but this only serves to muddy the waters of her main themes. She tilts the play towards the view that tradition and the natural environment should remain unspoilt and then she does an about-turn by pointing out that “unspoilt” can mean conditions of abject poverty in which children run around covered in excrement. At this point, perhaps she comes round to validating tourism on the grounds that it is a mechanism for spreading wealth more equally,

So, can a way be found for heritage and tourism to co-exist for the benefit of all? The play asks the question but does not offer any answers. As more and more of the world comes to resemble a gigantic theme park, the issues discussed here are of pressing concern not just to Shangri-La. However, Ng’s play is interesting more than it is involving and it gets its messages rather muddled.

Performance date: 14 July 2016

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