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Review: Limehouse Nights – Collision of Cultures

Published 2 June 2010

Limehouse, I admit, isn’t the most fashionable place in the world. But for anyone remotely interested in the history of London, Limehouse and the surrounding docks – once the beating heart of the British Empire – are seminal visiting.

From the 18th century, this was the scene where London’s vast trading wealth and abject poverty fused dramatically, where the myths and realities of imperialism collided, sparking massive cultural repercussions and creating a place that history has scripted as both reviled and darkly glamorised.

This month there is a major reason for you to take that DLR train in thus direction and share your carriage with the suit-attired city minions of Canary Wharf.  A brand new production based on a true story called Limehouse Nights illuminates the history of the area in the way that only theatre’s lantern can.

Set in 1918, Limehouse Nights begins with the mystery of a young actress’ death, with cocaine as the apparent cause. But who to convict? The xenophobic old boys of the police point to Limehouse’s Chinese immigrants, viewed as corrupting, preying degenerates who live in a hotbed of crime and immorality.

Burke, the investigator, protests otherwise. He seeks to befriend the very people his colleagues are accusing, proving himself to be enamoured with their culture in a way that is at odds with the era’s codes. But is his fascination for the Chinese a friendly leap of imagination, or is he displaying a fetish for the exotic that smacks equally of imperialistic misrepresentation?
This outstanding production puts divisions of class, culture and empire under a microscope, reclaiming the humanity behind a lost immigrant community which colonial Britain anxiously demonised.

The script is intelligently crafted, carefully weaving historical signposts (particularly the end of the First World War and women’s suffrage) with the more intimate details of how society reflected, and reacted to, such changes. One drawback is that it is a touch predictable, with the clues for the outcome of the drama overegged, but this is overcome, as far as I’m concerned, by the fact that it is so entertaining a piece of theatre as a whole.

The cast were superb but special credit must be awarded to the triumphant lead (Tom Ferguson) who was uniquely captivating, even if his character’s apologetic grovels to his Chinese ‘friends’ somewhat anachronistically echoed Mark Corrigan from Peep Show.

Limehouse Nights has a great deal to boast about, with strong acting, an engrossing plot, and a truly evocative set which uses sandbags, boxes, crates and lanterns to recreate those murky streets of 1918 East London.  And the location – Limehouse Town Hall – couldn’t be more fitting. This is intelligent escapism at its best.

Directed by: James Yeatman
Running from: 24 May – 11 June
Address: Limehouse Town Hall, 646 Commercial Road, Limehouse, London E14 7HA
Online tickets available from www.kandinsky-online.com
Ticket Prices: £10 Advance; £12 on the door