Review: Micah Sandt’s linguistic agility shines as Gweilo brings Martin Booth classic to the stage

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 April, 2016, 2:16pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 April, 2016, 2:16pm

Gweilo, a play by Pants Theatre Production, is based on the 2004 memoir of the same name by the late Martin Booth.

The book is about Booth’s fond memories of growing up in 1950s Hong Kong, a blond, blue-eyed boy whose mother encouraged him to mingle with the locals and learn Cantonese.

It remains a popular book, though detractors find it to be overly sentimental and Booth’s devotion for his mother and obvious hatred for his father uncomfortable.

Kenneth Booth, a civil servant posted to Hong Kong from Britain, still gets short shrift in the play: a “stick-in-the-mud” with too much fondness for a pink martini. But Micah Sandt delivered a solo performance where he shifted between characters and languages with remarkable agility and competence, conveying affection without overweening nostalgia.

Rewind, book: 'Gweilo' by Martin Booth

Sandt, who has a Finnish mother and French father, is himself a third-culture kid who grew up in Discovery Bay and went to a local school.

Fluent in English and Cantonese, he is the young Booth who flits between worlds. This is not just the view of a dying man in Britain but a very real experience today.

As co-creator along with director Wu Hoi-fai, Sandt says in the programme that he wants to avoid nostalgia – but he hasn’t entirely succeeded. The play is a nostalgic reminder of the emotional attachment that all the flotsam washed on to its shores has felt for Hong Kong over generations, regardless of where they came from.

But the play is faithful to the book in an important way. The portrayal of Joyce Booth, the mother, adds an extra layer to the narrative: how moving to a new place allows for reinvention and freedom from rigid social conventions “back home”, the universal experience of expatriates to this day.

Some may find Booth’s affection for his mother over the top but it is tenderly played out here. There are scenes where Sandt, as the mother, sings a charming musical number with Clark Gable as the object of her fantasy. Her loyalty to the couple who were the family’s live-in servants also avoided crossing the fine line between sensitivity and patronising.

The set was unexpected. There were no neon lights, Chinese shop signs or even a rickshaw.

Sandt moved among pastel-coloured versions of Ikea furniture which served as background to Hong Kong and the UK where the elderly Booth reminisces. Subtle – but clever – live musical accompaniment was provided by Guyshawn Wong and Natalie Yuen.

Ultimately, Sandt’s multiple voices are a salutary reminder that the story of Hong Kong does not have a single narrator.

This review is based on April 15 evening performance. Gweilo is performed until April 24 at the HKRep Black Box Theatre, Sheung Wan Civic Centre, in English and Cantonese with bilingual subtitles.