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The critically acclaimed production of Murder in San José opens at the HKAPA on 30 April 2021, marking the return of live theatre in Hong Kong



Friday 30th April 2021 saw many Hong Kongers return to the theatre for the very first time since the start of the pandemic. Long queues formed outside the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts - a sight that used to be so frequently seen and insignificant pre-covid, but now holds a very important meaning, as it marks the long awaited comeback and recovery for the theatre industry here in the city.

Theatregoers waited patiently to fill in their contact tracing details and have their temperatures taken, before being granted entry into the building. Seeing the large number of people turn up for live theatre again was truly incredible - in the foyer you could hear excited chatter coming from all directions, people overjoyed to be back in a theatre and to see this multi award-winning production of Murder in San José by CHONG Mui Ngam (莊梅岩) and directed by YAN Wing Pui, Olivia (甄詠蓓).

Review: MURDER IN SAN JOSE AT HKAPA The play, which won best script in the 2010 Hong Kong Drama Awards, tells the story of Tang and Ling, a couple who immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong. The two of them live a relatively quiet and normal life in a secluded part of San José, until one day, Ling's old primary school classmate,Sammy, visits, which sets off the internal yet long-existing differences between the couple.

Tang, a self-acclaimed project coordinator/entrepreneur, portrayed by the award-wining stage veteran POON Chan Leung (潘燦良), is an ambitious but somewhat naive and starry-eyed man, hoping to live the American Review: MURDER IN SAN JOSE AT HKAPA Dream with his e-commerce business. With previous ventures failing to lift off, his wife Ling (played by TIN Yui Lee, Kristal 田蕊妮) is left unimpressed, often pointing out Tang's shortfalls, criticising his every move, making him feel inadequate and suffocated in the relationship. With the arrival of Sammy, played by WAN Yuk Yu (溫玉茹), the audience begin to witness the rapid deterioration of Tang and Ling's marriage through a series of events. Eventually, all the pent up resentment, jealousy and anger reaches a breaking point and results in a shocking revelation which sees the final scene featuring Tang in possession of a wooden beam, ready to use as weapon.

Going by the name of the play, those unfamiliar with the production will be surprised to know that it is filled with comedic elements throughout. Theatregoers who are expecting a full-on psychological thriller might feel a little disappointed to learn that this play is more of a marriage-on-the-rocks drama with a grim reveal at the end - secrets and lies, fake identities and murders. However, that's not to say that it isn't good. Murder in San José is a great piece of theatre and Chong does a marvellous job of balancing the tension and humour, making the production an enjoyable but gripping one to watch. Often, audience members forget the underlying thriller aspect as the comedy is so well-written. They are only reminded of it until the suspenseful music kicks in between acts.

Leading the cast is Poon whose character delivers most of the laughter in the play. Whether it's Tang's snappy and snide comments towards his wife, or the foul-mouthed rant he spouts during his marijuana high, the renowned actor Review: MURDER IN SAN JOSE AT HKAPA has audiences often laughing out loud throughout the 120 minute production. But besides these dramatic moments, Poon also demonstrates the apathetic side of Tang exceptionally well, accurately capturing what a controlling and manipulating spouse can do to someone's psyche. We see Tang's character go through a series of highs and lows, outbursts being brought on by various triggers, and it's through Poon skilful handling of these sudden changes which makes it the emotional turmoil so believable.

Playing opposite him is Tin, whose portrayal of Ling is nothing short of masterful. The character's controlling personality is established right from the get-go, with the audience seeing how important it is for Ling that everything is done her way. Review: MURDER IN SAN JOSE AT HKAPA When she doesn't get the conformity from those around her, it provokes this spiteful and vindictive side that she has been hiding. But what's brilliant, yet also slightly scary, is how controlled Tin's approach is. She's able to easily flick between the kind and innocent-looking wife, to someone who quickly turns rage and jealousy into payback. Every time the character is challenged and called out for her questionable behaviour, there's an immediate denial of foul-play. The scripted responses aren't always very plausible or strong, yet Tin's sharp delivery successfully convinces people that every action of Ling's is justified.

Wan, does a fairly good job in playing this free-spirited and kind soul that is Sammy, eager to help fix her friend's marriage and make things better for everybody. Through this character, Wan brings an abundance of energy to the stage, and not only does it reflect the positive and trusting nature of Sammy, but it serves as a much needed breather amidst the marital tension between Tang and Ling. Review: MURDER IN SAN JOSE AT HKAPA However, one thing that doesn't quite sit well for me is the cutesy, child-like voice that the character of Sammy has. In East and South East Asia it's not uncommon to see girls and women be like that (嬌嗲) - often it's just in front of their partners or spouse to seem more likeable or to be a bit more persuasive - but here, Wan's version of Sammy seems to over do it slightly, resulting in a young teenager vibe. Sammy is supposed to be an old school friend of Ling, so despite the ages never being revealed, you would imagine the two would at least be close in age. Furthermore, you can be a happy-go-lucky, carefree individual but sound mature at the same time. I'm not sure what the purpose of that cutesy voice is, and it's unknown if this is what Chong wanted for the character, or it was something that came about through Yan's direction.

The rest of the cast is mReview: MURDER IN SAN JOSE AT HKAPA ade up of YIP Chun (葉進) - the investor Tang is trying to charm; CHIU Yi Wai (趙伊禕) - the investor's wife; and CHU Pak Him (朱柏謙) - Ling's friend who she is trying to introduce to Sammy. Though on stage for a relatively short period, the trio deliver a solid and faultless performance, with their characters being invaluable in escalating the tension. Their appearance and the subsequent drama that ensues at the house becomes a key turning point in the play.

Whilst the script and the strong performance contributes significantly to the success of the play, it is important to acknowledge the input from set design, wardrobe, sound and lighting, whom without, the production would most likely would not have the same impact. For me, the standouts came from set design and wardrobe.

The set, designed by YIP Cheuk Tong (葉卓棠), is simple in that there's no use of revolves, multiple backdrops, or changes of scenery, however, it is incredible effective in transporting us to San José. Upon entering the theatre, audiences immediately see a translucent greenhouse-like structure that allows audiences to vaguely look in, setting the mysterious atmosphere before the play even starts. Taking up the entire width of the stage, the house stays true to the stereotypical American house in the suburbs, mimicking the vast space that comes with those types of properties. As the play begins, the panel is lifted to reveal the interior. The open layout of allows audiences to really focus on the action that's going on, but when you look at the chosen furnishings that decorate the stage, you will notice the clever contrast it holds. Following a warm, earthy and woody colour scheme, Yip's design enables audiences to imagine what idyllic domestic life the couple used to have, yet what we see now is the cold and hostile relationship between the two.

Alan NG, who is responsible for the costume design, also does a great job playing with the contrasts. For Tang and Ling who are stuck in this unsatisfying marriage, the costumes comprised of plain and dull colours, Review: MURDER IN SAN JOSE AT HKAPA mostly beige, army greens, greys and blues; whilst the remaining characters of Sammy and the three additional guests are all dressed in more brightly coloured outfits, corresponding to the burst of energy and chaos that they bring to Tang and Ling's mundane life. The costumes aren't elaborate in their design but it is the simplicity that makes it realistic, matching the quiet and low-profile life that Tang and Ling wanted to live.

Overall, this play is performed to a very high standard, and is definitely recommended. This comes from someone who has struggled with local Cantonese theatre productions for a long time, often finding scripts to be somewhat lacklustre or the acting being too exaggerated and forced for my liking. Murder in San José has helped restore some faith in local theatre - a quality script brought to life by an impressive company of actors, this production is one that the Hong Kong theatre industry can be very proud of.

Murder in San José runs at the Lyric Theatre, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts from 30 April 2021 - 16 May 2021.

Language: Cantonese with some Mandarin.

Chinese subtitles available. Tickets available at via HK Ticketing.

(The production operates at 75% seating capacity in compliance with the Hong Kong Government Covid-19 restrictions. All audience members are required to wear a mask throughout their stay at the Academy, and must have a temperature of below 37.5C.)






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