Review: Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok coming to Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

by Dave Massey

Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok coming to Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok by In-Sook Chappell is a play based on family biography Sweet Mandarin by Helen Tse and is coming to Belgrade’s B2 Theatre in Coventry from May 30th until 2nd June.

This is a very personal, generational tale based on a real life story, discovering family history, cultural change and exploring the painful secrets that the older generation would prefer never have experienced.

Siu-See Hung & Ruth Gibson. Photo by Jonathan Keenan
Siu-See Hung & Ruth Gibson. Photo by Jonathan Keenan

Helen (Siu-See Hung) is a British born Cambridge graduate working in Hong Kong, she’s always felt like she would probably discover herself in Hong Kong but being from north Manchester she discovers the chinese culture is actually quite alien to her. She has a vision/dream of her grandmother Lily Kwok (Tina Chiang) who grew up in Hong Kong and then moved to Manchester to Middleton to open one of the first Chinese takeaways in the UK. Her grandmother Lily speaks to her and says the best way to understand her past is to walk in Lily’s own footsteps.

We see Helen as Lily at the age of 14 or 15 becoming a maid for a British family under Mrs Woodman’s (Ruth Gibson) watchful eye. She meets a man Kwok Chan (Matthew Leonhart) who she becomes attracted to with but doesn’t bump into again for some years. At the same time in Helen’s real life she meets a co-worker (Andy Kettu) for a date and the thoughts of her family history are lingering around her head.

Tina Chiang photo by Jonathan Keenan
Tina Chiang photo by Jonathan Keenan

The first act set mainly in Hong Kong tackles some very serious topics and the set with its neon signs with chinese writing and large triangle in the background feel electric and classic at the same time. This is matched by the string music with its own electronic undertones, there’s an experimental theatre tone to these established confident actors, they move in unison like their arrivals on stage and departures are choreographed to the last centimetre.

Arriving back in the auditorium for the second act was a quirky experience as Tina Chiang as Lily Kwok was cooking on stage in character as we learn about Lily’s long voyage to the UK with her friend (Minhee Yeo) and then discover more about Helen’s mother Mabel (Rina Takasaki).

I loved Siu-See Hung performance as Helen, she deals with subjects in such a considered manner and pairing her with the reserved and determined Tina Chiang as Lily is inspired, they are like two halves of a puzzle together.

I’ve been lucky enough to meet the real Helen Tse and her twin sister Lisa several times during my time living in Manchester, they run a restaurant with their sister Janet called Sweet Mandarin, which even has dishes inspired by Lily Kwok’s own recipes. I already knew a lot about the story behind Mountains, but seeing it brought to live so vividly was really beautiful.

Mountains photo by Jonathan Keenan
Mountains photo by Jonathan Keenan

I took my friend Viv, aka Mrs Brummie Gourmand, to see this performance at Watford Palace. Viv is first generation British Born Chinese and said “It was a very powerful and emotional performance which as many people with similar heritage should see if possible, as it touches on themes which may resonate with their own family history.”

Book tickets to see Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok at Belgrade Theatre from 30th May to 2nd

This isn’t a sponsored post.

#BrumHour was invited by Yellow Earth Theatre who produced Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok to see this production at Watford Palace ahead of its visit to Belgrade Theatre Coventry.