The One is a new Australian play that weaves a magical story about identity in the pressure cooker environment of a close family, systemic racism and, er, ballroom dancing. Faced with an impending visit by their elderly mother, Eurasian siblings Mel and Eric madly prepare for Helen’s arrival from Malaysia, their former home. Each frantically seeks to upstage the other and claim the mantle of being their mother’s favourite, or ‘the one’.
One of the lovely things about The One is that the universal material of family infighting and sibling rivalry is delivered onto the contemporary stage in a gorgeous wrapping paper of memory, dream sequences and ballroom dance routines. It’s a visually enchanting work, with red paper lanterns hung down the theatre’s staircases during the performance, and a set that precisely echoes the interior design of an 80s suburban Chinese restaurant.
Jim’s Oriental Restaurant and Milk Bar features faux red brick walls and keyhole arches, loud red patterned carpet and menu items projected on the wall. This sense of nostalgia and frequent flashback moments in the script are cleverly reinforced by the soundtrack and lighting design.
Bates’ work is characterised by her playful approach to breaking the fourth wall. Rarely do playwrights manage to inveigle their audiences into a sense of being so highly present and engaged with what’s happening on stage. In The One, the actors use both the theatre’s staircases to deliver lines, enter and exit, and hunt for a lost dog. At one point, a ball thrown to the dog (never actually seen) even comes bouncing down the stairway.
Another notable characteristic of the playwright’s work is that she’s bloody funny. During a discussion of the care of Helen’s pampered poodle, Mel declares that for her librarian brother Eric, ‘a pet rock would be too boisterous’. While folding serviettes, a task he has done many times before, Eric dryly notes that ‘paper napkin swans are my spirit animal’. There’s a number of other notable lines scattered throughout the play.
The One talks about growing up Asian in Australia and feeling a sense of not belonging to this place or one’s country of origin. In the aftermath of a racist attack, Eric – who left Malaysia when he was a baby – reflects on his tormentors: ‘they’re the centre, you know. They don’t know where I belong. But here’s the thing – I don’t know where I belong either’.
Later, Eric comments that he feels as if he has ‘a foot on either side of the ocean’. Mel and Eric’s characters are driven by this search to define an authentic sense of self, particularly how this is expressed in their relationships and sexuality. Their anxiety about parental acceptance is beautifully echoed in the uneasy relationship they have with Australian culture.
Despite being a genuinely funny work that tackles complex issues about race, identity and inclusion, there are occasional moments that feel rushed or incomplete. One climactic scene does not work, and despite a bravura performance, the decision making and psychology of the waitress character – played by Aileen Huynh – is not coherent. For example, after an elderly Malaysian woman pays for her restaurant’s rent for years, the waitress is initially obsequious but quickly becomes abusive.
The One gleefully foxtrots its way between being a musical and piece of contemporary theatre. Distantly echoing works like Strictly Ballroom, the script feels like a hit musical waiting to happen. The strong ensemble work by the cast is a credit to director Darren Yap.
Echoing the closeness of the family whose lives are depicted on stage, the cast helps the crew, stringing up red paper lanterns during the interval, revolving a circular table like a wheel out of the restaurant set, and creating something that feels particularly fresh out of clearing plates after a banquet. Meanwhile, the crew are wearing the red t-shirts of Jim’s Oriental Restaurant and Milk Bar. This is a well-realised production and an excellent night at the theatre.
The One by Vanessa Bates
Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli
Director: Darren Yap
Assistant Director: Sophie Kelly
Dramaturg: Sarah Odillo Maher
Set & Costume Designer: Nick Fry
Lighting Designer: Verity Hampson
Composer & Sound Designer: Michael Tan
Choreographer: Angie Diaz
Stage Manager: Lauren Tulloh
Costume Supervisor: Renata Beslik
Cast: Gabrielle Chan, Angie Diaz, Aileen Huynh, Damien Strouthos, Shan-Ree Tan
The One will be performed until 27 August 2022