Pic Jonathan Keenan

One of my favourite books is Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. It explores the conflict between Chinese immigrant mothers and their American-raised daughters in such a fully rounded way that you truly understand what these women went through to give their children these new lives.

Mountains might be smaller in scale but it has added appeal for Manchester audiences. It’s about the family behind Manchester’s famous Northern Quarter restaurant, Sweet Mandarin, and the sacrifices made by Lily Kwok to move from Hong Kong to Manchester.

But if you are expecting one almighty plug for this successful Chinese restaurant which is linked to the likes of Gordon Ramsay and inspired a best-selling novel, you will be pleasantly surprised.

Like The Joy Luck Club and another novel, The Railway Man, the play explores some dark themes to explain why characters appear so stoic and still.

Review: Mountains – The Dreams of Lily Kwok at the Royal Exchange Theatre I Love Manchester
Pic Jonathan Keenan

Helen (Siu-See Hung) is seeking her identity. She has grown up in the UK but feels that there is a piece of the jigsaw which is missing. She sets off on a journey to Hong Kong to fill in the blanks. Armed with romantic notions from Wong Kar-wai’s wonderful film In The Mood For Love, her eyes are well and truly opened as she walks in her grandmother’s shoes and is shocked by what she discovers.

Director Jennifer Tang does not shy away from some of the haunting memories that Lily Kwok previously held close to her chest. And the clever way in which the narrative unfolds leaves the audience wanting more. The first half ends on a cliffhanger and the piece is littered with enigmas.

Tina Chiang is excellent as Lily, the keeper of secrets, and manages to do far more than simply guide you. Every inch of emotion is conveyed on her face throughout. Even though you expect an actor to do this, she invites you into the narrative and you find yourself reading her moods during the calmest moments in the play. This makes you fully aware that the worst is yet to come.

Review: Mountains – The Dreams of Lily Kwok at the Royal Exchange Theatre I Love Manchester
Pic Jonathan Keenan

Siu-See Hung is enigmatic as Helen, a northerner and a go-getter on one level, so she explores the strength of the character. But once she starts find out about her past, she becomes a little girl lost all over again. There is also something truly Mancunian about her. She is a survivor.

One of the great things about the play is that the family cook what they cannot say in words. So Lily cooks her famous chicken curry for her daughter when she realises she is being bullied. This calms her but also means that Lily does not have to revisit her past to heal her. It also provides a treat for the audience, as the cooking is done on stage in real time which means the smells transport you to another world.

The play already does this beautifully, but seeing the intricate detail of what ends up in the wok, and the fusion of these herbs, spices, chicken and vegetables, represents what Sweet Mandarin has in abundance – beautiful food, a warm atmosphere, run by women with stories to tell, which they convey through their fabulous food.

Mountains has only one flaw. The running time is relatively short so it feels slightly rushed at times. I wanted more because these stories are so evocative and realistically conveyed.

Otherwise, this is a haunting, touching and funny play which truly does prove that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Mountains – the Dreams of Lily Kwok is at the Royal Exchange until 7 April.

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