One of the things that has fallen by the wayside since my move to Hong Kong are my trips to the theatre. Back in the UK, I would probably go see a show at least once a month – now I’m lucky if it’s more than once a year! Joining a list that includes Magnums, fish and chips and grass, it probably is one of the things I miss the most about my life in England; for me, there’s no beating that magical feel of live theatre done right and sharing that experience with a captive audience.
I’ll save the debate over Hong Kong’s perceived lack of culture for some other time (however, if Annie does come here again, I will cry) but often, I’ll read about what sounds like a really interesting production… only to then see the words ‘In Cantonese’. Boo. So when I read about Detention, a homegrown original production enjoying its fourth run in Hong Kong (which had also done a successful stint at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival), and saw the magical words ‘non-verbal’, I was in there like a flash!
Now I know what you’re thinking. That dreaded word… Mime. But don’t worry, I have as little interest in men wearing berets pretending to be in glass boxes as you do! Instead, Detention (formerly known as Beating The Classroom) is a non-verbal physical comedy that blends dance, music, Chinese opera and even kung fu – and all with a hefty dose of trademark Hong Kong style humour.
The plot itself is fairly light – three naughty schoolboys get stuck in detention with the prettiest girl in school, under the watchful eye of a rather feisty teacher – but it’s all about the execution! Imagine Stomp crossed with a street dance crew in the style of a Stephen Chow movie and you’re pretty much there.
With so few actors and so many stunts and set pieces to whizz through, Detention is a physical demanding and energetic show, so three young casts rotate throughout the play’s run. On my day, I thought the two standouts were Mayson Tong (Boy with Headband) and BabyJohn (Boy without Headband), who turned in performances that were funny and dynamic without feeling overly affected. Watch out in particular for BabyJohn’s stirring rendition of Minnie Riperton’s Loving You with an epic final note, plus his fun audience participation skit (that audience member was either a plant or commendably quick!).
They’re complimented well by the sweet Lin Ying Shi as the Girl Student, plus Winwei Tsai as the Boy with Glasses – the latter in particular busts out moves like you wouldn’t believe and definitely has more comedic smarts than his somewhat ‘third wheel’ part gives him a chance to showcase. However, whilst the Teacher character is definitely intended as the scene-stealer role, I did feel that Lai Yuk Ching occasionally over-egged it, particularly in the facial expressions department (although she’s a definite master at the HK-style selfie!).
I was also especially impressed with the set – it’s instantly evocative of a classroom and has lots of great elements and props that you don’t even notice until they come into their own being repurposed by the cast.
Whilst there might have been a few cultural references I didn’t quite understand, there was lots of Hong Kong humour I did recognise (and if you’ve seen a couple of TVB dramas, HK movies and kung fu films in your time, you probably will too) – but there’s even more universal jokes that everyone should enjoy.
There are plenty of genuine laugh-out-loud moments to be had and when all Detention’s actors join forces for the show’s big musical moments or stunt-filled action pieces, the show really takes flight. Clocking in at just 73 minutes, it’s a show that never outstays its welcome – although it could definitely be made tighter still, with a slicker edit and a smoother flow (it retains a very episodic feel). Plus, any show that includes a reference to Mighty Morphin Power Rangers is a winner in my book!
Having never been to the Shouson Theatre at the Hong Kong Arts Centre before, I thought it was a really great space – not too big, not too small, comfy seats and kitted out professionally (it reminds me of the Djanogly Theatre back in Notts). Overall, it was a highly entertaining afternoon, whilst the originality and inventive elements of the production, plus the sheer verve, brio and likeability of the cast, carry it through its slower moments.
Detention’s director Tang Shu-Wing has said that Hong Kong needs an international touring show, and this was his attempt to create one. Whilst it’s far from perfect, Detention is definitely a step – or rather, a somersault! – in the right direction. As a representative of original homegrown theatre in the 852, it’ll do very nicely thanks.
Detention by Tang Shu-Wing Theatre Studio runs from 2-18 August 2013 at Shouson Theatre, Hong Kong Arts Centre; see full schedule of performances here. Tickets cost $190 or $260, available from URBTIX, 2111 5999