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La Mama: The Gang of Five

by Heather Leviston

While La Mama’s home base continues to rise phoenix-like from the ashes, other intimate venues have been sought to maintain this valuable cultural institution’s tradition of developing and presenting new, cutting-edge theatrical works. As part of La Mama Mobile, Creative Spaces in Abbotsford might not have been the ideal venue for the premiere of Noel Fidge’s chamber opera, The Gang of Five, but much of the La Mama vibe was retained in this modern, carpeted venue.

Friendly staff, the signature door raffle, after-show mingling of cast and audience and a very reasonably priced bar were complemented by effective, if somewhat intrusive, air-conditioning – a bonus that was most welcome on a hot night. A flat floor made sight lines problematic at times, but members of the cast were standing for much of the performance – always for the nineteen songs interspersed between the storyline.

As composer, librettist and director, polymath Noel Fidge has created a substantial piece of musical theatre. Presumably, The Gang of Five was scheduled to coincide with Chinese New year celebrations, making it one of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking artistic creations on offer at a time when live performances with an audience in situ is only slowly emerging. Its title is an obvious reference to the notorious Gang of Four of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and constant reference is made to the harm caused by revolutionary policies determined to obliterate the past. The effects of various facets of Chinese culture are explored through the lives of the five characters and the disparate generations as they try to negotiate their way through the conflicting demands of contemporary Australian culture and traditional Chinese values. Tensions are multi-layered and deeply personal.

Act One reveals the secrets the older characters have harboured for many years, creating dramatic tension as painful pasts, guilt and the reasons – both political and personal – for keeping these secrets are examined. The resolutions to the secret-holders’ problems offered in Act 2 are less than convincing – too much a work in search of a happy ending – but pat solutions do not overshadow some of the complexities faced by Australian Chinese in this sympathetic portrayal. There is a sense of playfulness in the fairy-tale ending that matches well with the sometimes laugh-out-loud humour we see along the way. There are many incidental details, such as the bridging role of the ever-present cups of tea and the importance of the Arts in its various manifestations that inspire respect.

The opening bars of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no.2 open each Act – a signal to ponder as we witness the increasingly important role Chinese musicians play in the musical life of not just our city but around the world; ironically, they and other Asian musicians are a major force in preserving Western music. In the role of Xiao Jun, houseguest of Chinese antiques dealer Chen Fu and his wife Song Mie-Lien, Po Goh proves himself to be a capable actor and a talented pianist. Noel Fide has written music of considerable complexity and musical range, which Po Goh delivers with fluent ease from the grand piano at the back of the performance area. Flavours of French and English Art Song blend with sophisticated musical theatre idioms as the characters meditate on their hopes and anxieties.

Although Cindy Liu was a remarkably youthful-looking Aunt Song Mie-Lien, her vibrant soprano voice and warm personality gave emotional authenticity to the role. Both she and Chen Ting, who plays the role of aspiring artist niece Yu Lin, have graduated with distinction from Melbourne’s universities and are on their way to making names for themselves on the international stage. Yu Lin possesses a similarly pleasing vibrant soprano, but it was not always possible to understand the lyrics. Her naturalistic style of acting was extremely engaging and convincing, but a tendency to drop her voice at times would have been better suited to filmed rather than live theatre performance.

As Chen Ting’s uncle, Chen Fu, Raymond Kong made a strong impression. Even the vocally uncomfortable highest notes appeared to reinforce the appealingly sensitive nature of the generous but guilt-ridden art connoisseur. Importantly, his diction was excellent. Of all the singers, Maurice Wan was less vocally secure as the art collector hanger-on Huang Chung; however, he gave his characterisation a macho energy that enhanced the range of personalities being portrayed, particularly in his final song “Honour Bound”. He also made a creditable addition to the three quartet pieces.

According to one Chinese Horoscope 2021 website: “This year is going to be lucky and also perfect to focus on relationships, whether we are talking about friendships or love. The Metal Ox year is also great for making order in the family life. After all, if the family life is peaceful, everything gets solved!” It’s a reassuring prediction that coincides with central themes of The Gang of Five. After all, the ensemble piece “Keep it in the Family” brings the work to its upbeat conclusion.

The Gang of Five has certainly merited the support of La Mama in its development and mounting, and deserved the warm appreciation of the audience on Thursday night.

Photo supplied.

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Heather Leviston reviewed the performance of Noel Fidge’s “The Gang of Five” presented at La Mama’s Creative Spaces, Studio 1 in Abbotsford on February 11, 2021.

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