Review: Rice at Unity Theatre ****
There are some big themes at play in this outwardly slight and compact two-hander from the Actors Touring Company.
Class, race, immigration, equality, sexism and family relationships all come under the microscope, while understanding and misunderstandings also underpin the wider narrative which unfolds over 95 minutes of dialogue-driven action.
Actors Touring Company is dedicated to presenting the work of international writers, and Rice – co-produced with Orange Tree Theatre and in association with Theatre Royal Plymouth – comes from the pen of Asian-Australian playwright Michele Lee.
Nisha (Anya Jaya-Murphy) is a driven young executive officer at major Australian rice company Golden Fields, with ambitions to make her mark and eventually become the country’s first ever Indian female CEO.
A woman trying to make it in what is still a man’s world, she regiments her life – including allotting her high school sweetheart boyfriend a rigid two hours a week for ‘date night’ – in single-minded pursuit of her goal, which is first and foremost securing the rights to the distribution of rice across the whole of India.
Yvette (Angela Yeoh), a first-generation immigrant from China, is the office cleaner who has faced disappointment in her own dreams and entrepreneurial ambitions but doggedly carries on.
The strong-willed pair initially clash over the cleaning, but the prejudices which at first colour the two women’s views of each other fade away as they slowly find there is more that connects than divides them and they can learn from each other.
Above: Angela Yeoh as Yvette and Anya Jaya-Murphy as Nisha in Rice. Photos by Steve Tanner
Lee tells her story in short, sharp scenes which range from Nisha’s office to the company boardroom, Yvette’s spiky daughter’s car and on to the rice fields of West Bengal - the area of India from where Nisha’s beloved ‘Didima’ (grandmother) emigrated to Australia two generations earlier.
While Nisha and Yvette navigate increasingly common ground, control of their own lives and ambitions is challenged (and derailed) by external events and the actions and attitudes of others.
Along with playing the two women, Jaya-Murphy and Yeoh also neatly slip in and out of the roles of the various characters that populate their lives – Yvette’s conspiratorial Russian supervisor, combative daughter and sneering nephew, and Nisha’s entrepreneur boyfriend, emotionless new broom wielding boss and confident male co-worker.
Yeoh gives a sympathetic performance as a woman approaching life’s many disappointments with fortitude and sly humour, but who finally finds her voice.
And while Nisha the ball-breaking executive is initially less easy to warm to, the character has perhaps a more comprehensive narrative arc which Jaya-Murphy skilfully navigates.