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Sunny (Katie Leung of Harry Potter fame) moves from her home in rural China to the city of Shenzen and lands a job as a cleaner in a factory making ugly children’s toys to sell in the West. But that’s only one part of the story in Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s new play, which explores migration, class formation, and historical memory in modern China.
In the neon dystopia of Shenzen (excellently invented by Chloe Lamford and Philip Gladwell) the young migrant workers are faced with a choice between different aspirational paths. Ming-Ming (Vera Chok) takes Sunny to an “evening class” in self improvement, which is actually akin to a church meeting, led by the fraudulent Mr. Destiny, half game-show host, half TV evangelist. Meanwhile, her sexist and jaded supervisor (Junix Inocian) surreptitiously passes her a petition started by an underground union of sanitation workers. Sunny is faced with the choice of rising with her class or out of it, and initially chooses the latter.
As Sunny grapples with what it means to attempt self-betterment as a wage worker in an industrial society, she collides with a national history which she had thought was irrelevant to her. Indeed, much of the play is about characters facing or failing to face up to their pasts which leads to, among other things, a heartbreaking to-camera confession from Sunny’s father (Daniel York).
The doubling up in the cast is inspired – Sunny’s father also plays her boss, her best friend also plays a police agent – and gives the impression that the ultra-optimism of modern China and its authoritarian system are very much two sides of the same coin.
Much of the dialogue is hilarious, particularly the back-and-forths between Sunny and Ming-Ming, but the play is shocking as well as funny, and as a result not all the humour lands properly. Nevertheless, this is not a play that can be accused of treating its subject matter lightly (wait until the end), and the plot is more than strong enough to sustain a couple of slow scenes.
Against the backdrop of the largest migration in human history and the rapid formation of an urban proletariat, Sunny emerges as a working-class hero and faces the consequences. The acting is as frenetic and expansive as the script demands. This is an epic play – the questions it raises are larger still.
The World of Extreme Happiness runs until 26th October at the National Theatre Shed, box office 020 74523244.