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Pacific Overtures: Sondheim's tricky story of Japan is still hard to warm to

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Pacific Overtures at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Pacific Overtures, at the Menier Chocolate Factory – Manuel Harlan

The valiant Menier Chocolate Factory's attempt to reclaim its post-pandemic initiative has not been particularly successful this year. Two supposedly ear-splitting new musicals – The Third Man and Close-Up (about Twiggy) – were derided rather than hailed by critics. With its return to the work of Stephen Sondheim, you might think the theater is entering creative terra cognita. Yet this production of Pacific Overtures completes a triptych of its revivals of ambitious Sondheim shows that have been viewed as problematic – Assassins and Road Show (both with a book by John Weidman).

The late composer himself once described his 1976 work as “the most bizarre and unusual musical ever seen in a commercial setting” – a kind of “documentary variety show” – and pursues a simple if daring idea: It is intended to depict Japanese history from the arrival of American warships in 1853 under Commodore Perry, who wanted to end the country's 220-year isolation, to around 1868, and ultimately also to take a look at modern, “westernized” Japan.

Although the play proceeds in a series of vignettes, it essentially revolves around the shifting attitudes of two men. There is Kayama, a minor samurai who is initially (and hopelessly) tasked with seeing off the visitors; and Manjiro, a Japanese fisherman whose experience of life in the United States makes him useful to the shogun and turns him into a champion of American progress. Over time, their differing inclinations and loyalties begin to change.

Today, the show could be described as a musical TED talk; allusions to Brecht are frequent. The play is too playful to be dismissed as numbingly didactic. What it is, however, is emotionally dry and accompanied by an anxiety about authenticity. Sondheim's justification – that it is a “historical narrative written by a Japanese man who has seen a lot of American musicals” – does not ward off accusations of cultural tourism, for all the finesse of his haiku-like lyrics.

The twist on Matthew White's production is that it is a co-production with the Umeda Arts Theatre in Japan and features a predominantly Japanese and British East Asian cast. Its sense of “ownership” is cleverly conveyed early on, when the sympathetic narrator/”reciter” character (Jon Chew) interrupts a speech (in Japanese) and presses a remote control, which is followed by English.

Pacific Overtures at the Menier Chocolate FactoryPacific Overtures at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Pacific Overtures, at the Menier Chocolate Factory – Manuel Harlan

This authenticity lends a certain confidence to the production, a 115-minute, fast-paced affair. The action is presented on a wooden-floored set of elegant, polished decorum. Whether in the ornate costumes or the sophisticated movements, there is a fascinating sense of a very reserved ceremonial culture being invaded by something more brazen. This clash culminates in the darkly comic number Please Hello, which includes a superb Gilbert and Sullivan parody satirising the pretensions of British imperialism.

There are many admirable touches here – the use of Japanese puppets, the integration of origami and video magic, and the cast cannot be faulted for either attitude or vocal delivery. But the show remains unique – raunchy, even superficial, hard to endure (perhaps deliberately) and, despite some achingly beautiful songs, hardly a Sondheim masterpiece. All in all, one for his many fans, the Menier devotees and the intellectually curious.


Until February 24. Tickets: 020 7378 1713; menierchocolatefactory.com

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