The Basement, Auckland
Tuesday August 25, 2015
Directed by Amanda Grace Leo
Reviewed by MARIA JI

Bubblelands is the latest play by award-winning playwright Renee Liang (Lantern, The Bone Feeder, Under the Same Moon). This one-act tragicomedy is the story of a Blue Cod (Hweiling Ow) and a Crayfish (Benjamin Teh) as they learn about their new positions at the bottom of the food chain in a Chinese restaurant. The audience is invited to watch as Blue Cod and Crayfish attempt to build for themselves a world bigger than the fish tank that contains them.

Our awareness that the characters have seen (and could see) more than the linings of people’s stomachs is obtained largely through the telling of backstory. We’re told that Blue Cod – Hweiling Ow’s anxious and narrow-minded character – finds herself apart from her 1,571 sisters for the very first time. In describing the absence of her extended family and the faith bred from the security of numbers, we get some insight into what life was like before she was captured in Muddy Bottom.

Unfortunately, this is not enough to truly move us. The most charming potential developments in this bottom-dweller’s character – which may have had a shot at making us think about the ethics around consumption – are hinted at a few times, but not explored. Ow’s talents, which were wonderfully showcased in Under the Same Moon earlier this year, are only permitted to bang in frustration against glass walls.

Bubblelands-13.big copyBlue Cod’s nervous energy is balanced by the laid-back demeanour of Crayfish. Despite knowing more about the horror that the future holds, Crayfish is brazenly assured. He dances. He beat-boxes. He believes in love. Benjamin Teh’s performance in Bubblelands once again illustrates his versatility as an actor.

However, Liang’s decision to write this character as a randy wannabe gangster can at times be unpalatable. It seems somewhat stereotypical that this hip-hop loving cray is also the kind of (sea)weed-smoking creature that sexually assaults his tank-companion and dry-humps each of the rocks on stage for comedic effect. It’s a little strange that Liang then also tries to humanise Crayfish through his harrowing backstory, what with his tough childhood full of loss and betrayal. His best friend and wingman went missing; he narrowly escaped being eaten by his father.

Questionable crustacean conduct aside, Sarah Burren’s costumes (for both Crayfish and Blue Cod) are sublime. Burren, who once aspired to be a marine biologist and has worked on large-scale events with the Department of Conservation, has a discerning and admiring eye for marine wildlife. And it shows. With sequins and glitter and lycra, the costumes give Blue Cod and Crayfish the razzle dazzle and mobility they need in their efforts to enchant the audience and help us dispel feelings of entitlement to the seafood on our plates.

Enchantment is within reach. It’s not hard to see where this passionate and talented team of creatives was aiming in Bubblelands. In terms of temperament, Crayfish is an affable buffoon with great potential as Blue Cod’s match. Somewhere, amidst the Spongebob references and plumes of seaweed, in an oyster that is yet to be shucked, lies a pearl of a play that presents us with a touching plate of dystopia. That comes with the lingering scent of ginger and coriander, of course.

Photos: Julie Zhu