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Review: LARGER THAN LIFE at Hong Kong City Hall Theatre

Larger Than Life, the French comedy by Martial Courcier, opens at the Hong Kong City Theatre Hall on 13 May 2021 as part of the Le French May annual arts festival.

Review: LARGER THAN LIFE at Hong Kong City Hall Theatre On Thursday 13th May, the French comedy, Larger Than Life ("Plus vraie que nature"), opened at the Hong Kong City Hall Theatre. As part of the Le French May, an annual arts festival organised by the Consulate General of France, Hong Kong audiences were introduced to Martial COURCIER's work, with the help of Cantonese translations from Director TANG Shu Wing, and translator Matthew CHENG.

The play opens with two friends, Julien and Francois, conversing over a game of chess and a couple of drinks. With Julien being single and turning 40, and Francois having settled down, the conversation turns to focus on Julien's struggles with dating and the commitment that comes with it. Concerned about his friend, Francois gifts him this charming android named Chloe to act as his companion. After being installed with memories and sentiments, Chloe transforms from a basic chess-playing robot to a life-like being, who enables Julien to see past her true identity and fall in love with her. Everything works out perfectly until one day Chloe brings up the idea of wanting to have a baby, and bit by bit their world starts to crumble.

Playing the role of Julien is Guthrie YIP, an experienced theatre actor from The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. On paper, you would expect a stellar performance from anReview: LARGER THAN LIFE at Hong Kong City Hall Theatre actor with his credentials, but his portrayal as Julien was sadly a little disappointing. In comedic pieces, it is often required of actors to amplify emotions and expressions, however, Yip tried too hard and his portrayal become melodramatic with excessive over-exaggerated actions. Sudden arm-raising outbursts and forced voices tipped it over the edge, making the performance cringe-worthy and uncomfortable at times. It's a real shame because Yip is a competent actor, and should he have played the chauvinistic, 40-year old womaniser, without having to use all those unnecessary actions or forcefully age-up the character through low, gravelly voices, his performance would have been more far realistic and enjoyable to watch. That being said, Yip should not carry the full responsibility as it's just as much the director's responsibility to bring out the best performance from the actors and tell the story in a compelling way.

Opposite Yip is Joe Wong, another fellow graduate of The Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts. Joe Wong's character truly lives up to the title of the play, Larger Than Life. Flamboyant and mischievous, the character of Francois leads a lot of the humour in the production, Review: LARGER THAN LIFE at Hong Kong City Hall Theatre and Wong does a good job in establishing his role right from the beginning. But besides the comedy, the character of Francois also has a sensitive and compassionate side which Wong delivers exceptionally well - his perspicuous awareness to timing and rhythm is demonstrated through the way he manages the ebbs and flows in energy, allowing the character to be more multi-dimensional, and his comedic timing is brilliant, allowing sufficient time for the jokes to land, never rushing the pace. Audiences may at first find the character to be a little full-on, but by the end of the play, Joe Wong works his magic and you can't help but like and sympathise with the character.

Last but not least is Mandy WONG who plays the unnervingly clever and endearing android, Chloe. We first see the actress as this out-of-the box, bog-standard robot who is equipped with its basic settings. From the beginning, Wong leaves audiences impressed with her convincing imitation - the mechanical motion sequences and her mimicking of computerised speech are repeated to great consistency with movements hitting the sameReview: LARGER THAN LIFE at Hong Kong City Hall Theatre angles, height and distance every time, and the tone of words being steadily replicated throughout. The character's subsequent transition into Chloe 2.0, the extremely advanced android, just reflects what a well-rounded actress Wong is. Now being programmed with a great deal of data, ranging from memories, relationships, thoughts, and feelings, the character requires Wong to cover a myriad of emotional states and she moves between these facets effortlessly, making the character incredibly believable as a computer-operated being where there are endless possibilities and sides to its behaviour. As a widely recognised and celebrated television actress, it was an interesting change to see Wong on the City Hall stage, and her solid performance leaves audiences eager to see her in more theatre productions.

In the programme, the director, Tang, describes the play as a "work of art" that "relates both to the past and the future", and explores real human emotions, however, it feels far from that. Courcier's book only lightly explores the complexity of human emotions and relationships, with the main focus being on the android and the funny troubles it brings. There's so much emphasis on the latter that there isn't much room to delve deeper, and the examination of what it means to have interactions and connections with others only gets explored towards the end of the play, leaving it somewhat rushed.

Further adding to the problems, there are a few issues with the directions, set design and audio and visuals. The set, designed by Vanessa SUEN, is simple but unfortunately, is also unimaginative and cliché, resembling that of a low-budget, high school drama production: Review: LARGER THAN LIFE at Hong Kong City Hall Theatre Yellowy-gold fancy looking sofa yet accompanying that, is an basic mahogany coffee table that looks as though it's been bought from IKEA. In home office, there's a modern, art-deco style swivel desk and leather office chair, but surrounding it are stools and artwork depicting lovers kissing on a balcony. The entire set-up feels as though it lacks thought and consistency, and does not fit in with the character of Julien. Suen simply adopts the stereotypical idea that French apartments must have fancy and posh-looking furnishings, in the hope that it transports audiences to France, but she fails to follow through with it, giving the impression that all it took was a simple checklist of 'French', 'fancy', 'functional' and 'business man' to compile the set.

The blocking of the play also raises a lot of questions, especially since it ties in significantly with the set design and props. Review: LARGER THAN LIFE at Hong Kong City Hall Theatre Under Tang's directions, actors are turned into furniture movers, with stools being dragged across the stage on multiple occasions whilst adding little value to the scene. The first instance is where lead characters move stools from various ends of the set to sit behind the sofa and converse, preventing audiences from seeing more of the interaction between the two. The second, bringing stools to the front the stage for Julien and Francois to sit under a spotlight. The positioning and the amount of effort involved makes little sense. The lack of attention to detail unfortunately continues in many areas throughout the play, with one key area being the use of projections.

In the play, we see 3 sets of projections. The first being a slow motion video of Chloe turning around, the second, also a slow motion video, shows Chloe and Julien engaging in an intimate kiss. The third and final projection features a sound waves for the Gregorian chant-like music that plays in the background of the final scene. The timing and purpose of raises questions. The first two not really tying in with the scenes that come before and after it, adding little value to the storytelling. With projections lasting approximately a minute long, watching the first one, you cannot help but feel it was designed to be an entry slot for late arriving audiences, and the second projection being for costume changes and set cleanups. But even so, costume changes or set clean-ups to remove and reposition a handful of items shouldn't need that length of time. If Shing's intention was for these projections to remind audiences of the android element, then more thought is needed in order to incorporate it fully into the production, adding relevance and effectively conveying its purpose.

Overall, despite the humour of Courcier's text and some fine performances from Joe Wong and Mandy Wong, the lack of consistency and attention to detail just creates too many flaws in the production.

Larger Than Life runs at the Hong Kong City Hall Theatre, from 13 May 2021 - 15 May 2021.

Photos by courtesy of Tang Shu-wing Theatre Studio

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