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Review: Lost in Business Translation in Chinglish, Park Theatre

Chinglish - Lobo Chan  Candy Ma  Windson Liong and Gyuri Sarossy  (courtesy Richard Davenport for The Other Richard)
Chinglish - Lobo Chan Candy Ma Windson Liong and Gyuri Sarossy Photo courtesy of Richard Davenport for The Other Richard

Remember the film Lost in Translation when an ageing actor played by Bill Murray is given badly translated instructions from a Japanese director? David Henry Hwang's play Chinglish plays out a similar scenario but with an American business man Daniel Cavanaugh (Gyuri Sarossy) trying to navigate a business deal in China for his Cleveland-based signage company.

The play opens with Daniel giving a talk on how to do business in China, three years after trying to secure that first deal. He illustrates his key point about taking your own translator by showing a series of signs that have been amusingly mistranslated. The narrative then takes us back to the time of the deal when Daniel has enlisted the help of 'business consultant' Peter (Duncan Harte) who has been living in China for several years and whom can help him navigate the business culture. In China, Peter tells Daniel, building a relationship with potential business partners is key.

And so we get an interesting and often amusing study on not just the differences in doing businesses but also relationships both of which are often cleverly illustrated through bad translation. The initial business meeting sets the tone with Peter acting as Daniel's translator and Miss Qian (Siu-see Hung) amusingly out of her depth as the translator for Cai Guoliang (Lobo Chan) and Xi Yan (Candy Ma) with whom Daniel is trying to do the deal. We see the accurate translation in subtitles above the stage while Miss Qian gives her own version. It is slickly done.

The deal gets more complicated as the play progresses although how much it is tied up in politics, personal relationships and goals doesn't really become clear until the final act, which felt a little late - or perhaps the first half just indulges in the initial deal negotiations a little too long. There is also an odd  monologue by Xi Yan about how much women's lives have actually improved in a generation, which feels out of place.

Otherwise Chinglish is an interesting and amusing study of cultural differences, of ideas of honesty and dishonesty and the nature of business relationships. I'm giving it four stars and it's at the Park Theatre until 22 April and it is two hours and 10 minutes long including an interval.