Theatre reviews: Ship Rats | The King and I

Ship Rats is a searingly clear and powerful exploration of the impact of 19th century sexism and racism, writes Joyce McMillan

Ship Rats, Oran Mor, Glasgow ****

The King And I, Edinburgh Playhouse ****

At a time when relations between the west and China are close to the top of the news agenda, Alice Clark’s fierce Play, Pie And Pint drama Ship Rats – bound for the Traverse in Edinburgh next week, as the first play in this autumn’s Edinburgh lunchtime season – could hardly be more topical, despite its historic setting. The scene is below decks on British ship somewhere in the Atlantic, in the year 1880; and the action starts in fine style as a blood-drenched woman enters, vomiting copiously at the sight of her own hands, dripping with gore.

Ship Rats PIC: Tommy Ga-Ken WanShip Rats PIC: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Ship Rats PIC: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

The woman is Jessie, young pregnant wife of the ship’s brutal captain, who has just ended the utter misery of her marriage – more or less arranged by her money-grubbing father – by stabbing her husband to death in his bunk. Jessie is a working-class Glaswegian who takes no prisoners; but when the ship’s Chinese cook Jin Hai arrives on the scene, apparently in search of some supplies, she begins to realise that she is not the only one with strong views about her late husband, and his savage treatment of his crew.

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To say that the dialogue between Jessie and Jin Hai is a spicy one is an understatement; she swears like a trooper, and both have long since abandoned conventional morality in their struggle for survival in a brutal world. Nor is the story Alice Clark weaves around these characters entirely credible; the idea that they could have survived for even an hour, plastered in blood, on a ship full of frightened men searching for their captain’s killer is almost as far-fetched as Jin Hai’s eventual escape plan.

Yet the play’s purpose – in exploring the impact of 19th century sexism and racism on women, and on colonised people across the world – is searingly clear and powerful, as is Jin Hai’s contempt for the British, who have drugged, duped and subdued his people through the opium trade. And if theatregoers in Glasgow and Edinburgh fancy some vivid theatrical insights into the origins of the culture wars and global tensions that rage across our world today, then they will find them in Laila Noble’s vivid production of Ship Rats; along with two hugely entertaining performances full of drama, and a fine, dark sense of humour.

At the Playhouse in Edinburgh, meanwhile, the UK touring version of the gorgeous Lincoln Center production of The King and I returns in fine form, and tackles the same subject – the historic roots of current east-west tensions – in the grand romantic style of the great American postwar musical. There’s no denying the enduring power of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s book, lyrics and score, as Annalena Beechey’s exquisite Anna, and Brian Rivera’s likeable King of Siam, lead us through the story of the young British widow who arrives in Bangkok, in 1862, to become governess to the king’s many children, and to introduce them to the ways of scientific modernity, which the British Empire was then so confident it represented.

Cezarah Bonner (Lady Thiang) in The King and I PIC: Johan PerssonCezarah Bonner (Lady Thiang) in The King and I PIC: Johan Persson
Cezarah Bonner (Lady Thiang) in The King and I PIC: Johan Persson

In the end, the clash between the two cultures which the King is trying to reconcile becomes a painful one, that finally costs him his life. Along the way, though – and with support from Cezarah Bonner’s beautiful Lady Thiang, and a terrific 40-strong ensemble – Anna rapidly realises that she has as much to learn as to teach, in her relationships in the royal household; and the whole story surges forward on a magnificent tide of Richard Rodgers’s fabulous melodies and Oscar Hammerstein’s remarkable lyrics, often beautiful, but also sometimes razor-sharp, and never missing a beat, when it comes to understanding the nature of colonialism, and its harms.

Ship Rats is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until 16 September, and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 19-23 September. The King and I is at the Edinburgh Playhouse until 16 September.

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