Peter Houghton's The China Incident is the follow-up, or stylistic sequel if you will, to the surprise hit of last year, The Pitch. A hilarious one-man farce performed in a stunning manner by Houghton himself, concerned a hack of a screenwriter's attempt to pitch an uproariously bad action thriller to a room of movie execs, hammily acting out the dialogue, describing the action, and imitating the stars he imagines being cast in the film.
The China Incident is in exactly the same vein, a breathless marathon in which a single actor rapidly cycles through a multitude of different attitudes and modes of address. Anne Browning plays Bea, a high-powered private consultant in political PR, who is about to have a very bad day indeed.
As her incompetent (and unseen) assistant Minty connects calls through to her multitude of phones, Bea is immediately dealing with two of her clients: General Sezbatzo, the dictator of a small African nation responsible for some rather inconvenient massacres, and the U.S. President himself, on the famous red phone. Attempting to advise the President on an inflammatory situation with North Korea, she is simultaneously trying to convince the General not to commit any further genocide if at all possible, since "it looks bad". But if all this seems stressful, one is quickly disabused of any such notion as this is Bea's job, her comfort zone. The real juggling is only just beginning.
Before long, not only are the five phones all trilling, but her mobile is also ringing, her intercom buzzing and her laptop chirping "You've Got Mail" with increasing frequency. Bea is also trying to deal with several personal crises as well, with her hippie ex-husband seeking a reconnection, her lover trying to decide whether to leave his wife, and her resentful, soon-to-be-married daughter resisting her attempts to micromanage her alternative wedding, as well as trying to be civil to the prospective groom, his gay brother/chief bridesmaid and their suburban parents, all of whom she finds sickeningly mediocre.
To cap it all off, Bea finds out that her son has just been arrested for drug possession, but before she can leave the office to bail him out the phones keep ringing and everything escalates on both the international and personal fronts. As things begin to snowball with an increasingly tipsy President, besieged General, hysterical daughter, useless secretary etc. etc.... something is inevitably going to go wrong.
The China Incident is and absolute treat. One grasps for an ideal description for its chaotic simplicity, its blockbuster brevity. Suffice it to say that it is an excellent piece of theatre which practically anyone should enjoy. Houghton's witty script is very tight, pithy and deftly-constructed, absolutely mastering the difficult art of making half-conversations (as we only ever hear Bea's side of the dialogue) sound believable rather than expository. Having performed The Pitch himself, it might well have been daunting to write the play for another performer, so it is perhaps unsurprising that this time around it is his director on the former play who treads the boards. Browning is excellent, for indeed, simply getting through this show would be challenge enough, with its precisely-sequenced torrent of continuous speech and increasingly rapid bits of business with the multiple props.
However, Browning does more than just demonstrate her impressive mental and physical dexterity, she does one fine job of portraying Bea with many layers and believably-differentiated public faces as she deals with all her different clients, family members and prospective in-laws. It is a bold performance too, as the role is less sympathetic than Houghton's earlier screeenwriter character: this "mother of all jugglers" is decidedly amoral in going about her questionable occupation, and is evidently a rather poor mother, something of a snob, and possessed of a short and vicious temper. As events spiral out of control, Bea becomes increasingly shrill and venomous, to comic effect. While some might find Bea too distasteful a character, I felt that she was thoroughly engaging and managed to be sympathetic in her own odd way, avoiding outright caricature. This was due in no small part to Browning's exceptional performance.
Although I marginally preferred The Pitch on the basis of its subject matter, this is largely a question of taste. The China Incident is a terrific play which would be a treat for anyone. If you have a friend who doesn't normally go to the theatre, drag them along to this and you'll have a sure convert.
La Mama presents
The China Incident
Written and directed by Peter Houghton
La Mama | 205 Faraday Street, Carlton
Wed July 4 - Sun July 15
Wed to Sat @ 7pm, Sun @ 5pm