Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok @ The Royal Exchange Theatre
Tucked away at the edge of Manchester’s Northern Quarter is Sweet Mandarin – the Chinese restaurant run by Helen, Lisa and Janet Tse, which has been operating since 2004. Unknown to many, the restaurant and family behind it have a fascinating story to tell – and Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok provides a visually and emotionally stunning dramatisation.
Mountains is adapted by the award-winning writer In-Sook Chappell and directed by Jennifer Tang. In it, Helen (Siu-See Hung), raised in Britain, is living and working as a lawyer in Hong Kong, where she meets her grandmother, Lily Kwok (Tina Chiang). Through this meeting Helen, feeling she is missing something in her life and identity, hopes to find the true story behind her family. What Helen ultimately finds out from her grandmother is more shocking, vividly emotional and vital to know than she ever could have predicted.
The play is enacted with wonderful creativity, with Helen living out Lily’s life in her shoes, directly experiencing the high and low points through her eyes and reacting alongside her. At times, it’s hard to know one character’s motivations from another – which hammers home how important the relation between Kwok and Tse is.
Helen learns of the difficulty that Lisa experienced throughout her life – from being a peasant girl in the province of Guangdong, becoming a housekeeper for a rich, English family living in Hong Kong, then travelling with them to England in order to earn enough money to bring the rest of her own family across. Chiang’s portrayal of Lily – small, principled and fiery – is masterful, and you can truly see the pain behind her eyes as she recounts the life that is passed.
Food ties the generations together. Lily’s father makes money selling his own soy sauce, while Lily has a passion for cooking and thrives on caring for the Woodmans. What she knows is passed to her daughter Mabel, who teaches Helen – who, as we know, goes on to set up one of Manchester’s defining Chinese restaurants. In a production so intimately tied to food and its importance, it’s amazing to see the use of real cooking on-stage, creating evocative smells to help the audience better understand the link between taste and memory.
Mountains discusses important points about belonging and identity. Britain, and Manchester specifically, is utopian for Lily, saving her and her family from destitution in China – while Helen questions her place everywhere, feeling too British for Hong Kong and too Chinese for England. What’s more, it makes clear and impactful statements about women and the struggles they face. Beautifully, it manages to show the vast resilience and strength that many are capable of.
It is far from seamless – with the occasional line stumbled over and a difficulty sometimes handling pacing. However, it has a raw drive and intensity that permeates the entire play and masks mistakes – which I’m sure will be simple to iron out as the tour continues anyway.
Credit must also be given for the awe-inspiring set – with its vibrant, geometric lighting – and music design. When it came to changing the scenery, the supporting cast did a brilliant job – and managed to evoke an almost sci-fi setting as they did.
Mountains runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre until the 7th of April, before moving onto the Stratford Circus Arts Centre in London.