Minhee Yeo, Charlotte Chiew and Laura Tipper

Under the Umbrella

Coventry Belgrade B2


To paraphrase from both Jane Austen and the programme, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a young woman approaching 27 must be in need of a husband.

This ‘fact’ underlies Under the Umbrella, based on the Chinese marriage market and culturally located both in China and Coventry. It is a stunning piece, both in breadth and depth.

Even in Oscar Wilde, educated women have fewer children; in China, woman with PhDs are the third sex. They have educated themselves out of the marriage market, so the families’ dreams of grandchildren are over – with 27 the dividing line.

Wei (Mei Mac) is just 27 and mum Dong (meaning Winter, Charlotte Chiew) and Grandmother (Minhee Yeo) need their bakery business and lychee orchard left to the next generation – but there isn’t one while Wei is at university in Coventry studying for her PhD, ironically in female reproductive health.

Granny is old and poorly with the tyranny of illness to hold over her family. Dong also suffers with the gynaecological aftermath of Maoist less-than-sensitive forced abortion and sterilisation practices.

So why umbrellas? Firstly, they are used beautifully as a choreographed scene-changing device that keeps the dynamic going for the whole play. Secondly, they have cultural significance to both Britain and China where to open an umbrella indoors is considered bad luck. Worse for China where an open umbrella harbours ghosts.

This family has ghosts by the ton. The way this is tackled with a light ball is brilliant. The fear as they appear is tangible, and even educated Wei, ‘my middle name is rational’ believes. Why is her mother called Winter? Where are Spring, Summer and Autumn - all girls? Wei learns that Dong’s first girl ‘died’ and the scan of Wei showed a shadow that saved her life.

It sounds like a dry, academic piece; far from it. Wei’s relationship with her friend Lucy (Laura Tipper) reveals a deep friendship across a cultural divide because difficult, if differently difficult families unite them.

If a drama is likened to a journey, this one is about a journey of attitudes. When Granny dies, it allows the down-trodden Dong to sort her own life. Along the way, she allows Wei the space to live her life, her way. This is lovely work with lots to cherish and admire. I loved it.

Directed by Justine Themen, Amy Ng’s Under the Umbrella runs to To 16-03-19

Jane Howard


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