Image: Arcola Theatre
Rebecca Boey - Second Moon/Marie
Jon Chew - Headman Zhang/Wild Swan
Zachary Hing - Eunuch Lin/Follower of Christ
Camille Mallet De Chauny - Big Dog
Michael Phong Le - Old Six
Leo Wan - The Professor
'The foreign devils will be entranced by our performance and line our path back to Shandong with gold and cherry blossoms …'
1917. Shandong Province, Northern China.
Times are tough in Horse Shoe Village.
Old Six and Second Moon struggle to earn enough to feed their young child.
Big Dog struggles to overcome opium addiction and for Eunuch Lin, the fall of the Imperial Dynasty couldn't have come at a worse time.
Could a fierce war far away in Europe present an opportunity to put both themselves and their struggling nation on its feet?
Forgotten is inspired by the little-known story of the 140,000 Chinese Labour Corps who left everything and travelled half way around the world to work for Britain and the Allies behind the front lines during World War One.
One of the significant functions of the theatre is to reveal unheard or little known, real-life stories.
That function obviously becomes more potent and more affecting when the story is one that involves hardship, suffering and death.
Such is the case with Forgotten, which delivers the true story about the Chinese Labour Corps - some 140,000 workers who left their homes in villages in China to work behind the muddy lines and in the infested trenches of Europe during World War I.
I suspect that most people in the UK will never have heard about this organisation or, at the very least, will know very little about it, or the nature of the people who formed its ranks.
During this year which marks 100 years since the end of the Great War, Forgotten is a sensitive and compelling play, which also turns-out to be incredibly humorous, and goes at least part of the way to being a tribute and testament to the men who served in the CLC and the many who never returned to their homes.
Emma Baily's economical yet effective design initially sports a grass-like crop that lines the back wall of the acting area, blending effortlessly with the interior brickwork of the Arcola's Studio 2 and providing the setting for a Chinese village where this story begins.
This is a society based on agriculture providing little in the way of surplus
- a subsistence economy with people living on the edge.
That hardship, though, doesn't stop them looking for creative distractions and we find some of the villagers at the start of the piece rehearsing a play.
But with harsh lives and little money, it's no wonder that when they hear about work being offered in Europe - doing largely menial work for the British and French armies - many of them readily sign-up for duty.
And we find three compatriots making the lengthy voyage - oddly by way of Canada - to the battlefields of Europe.
What's immediately striking right from the initial scenes of Daniel York Loh's well-written and enthralling piece is the enormous cultural and social differences we discover in the Chinese village and which surface throughout, providing a rich vein of natural (and often earthy) humour even in some of the more moving moments.
Names, for example, are often descriptive, like Camille Mallet De Chauny's character who is called Big Dog - because he was "big and looked like a dog".
But he has no recollection of his family name and generally refers to Europeans as "Big Noses" and the Japanese as "big feet dwarves".
And we learn the affecting story of how Eunuch Lin (excellently played by Zachary Hing) was castrated in order to secure riches for his family from the Emperor, but which never materialised.
In the second act, we join the village friends installed in their roles in Europe and see their innate superstitions plaguing them as they have to clear-up the dead and endure their unseen disembodied spirits.
In this setting, we find them constricted by unbending military rules and requests for them 'not to commit suicide in the officers' quarters'.
Daniel York Loh's cleverly-worked play not only proves informative but it astutely humanises the story of the Chinese Labour Corps by bringing us beguiling and endearing characters we can readily identify with even though their culture is so strikingly different to our own.
And director Kim Pearce exhorts finely-tuned and enormously convincing - and enjoyable - performances from a skilled, earnest and hard-working cast.
Bringing to life the efforts and hardships of those whose role has largely been overlooked and has gone unacknowledged makes Forgotten an important and commendable work that helps, in a small way, to set the record straight.
But it's also a singular and enthralling drama - hugely recommended.
Links and related content
ActDrop listing for Arcola Theatre
Our show listing for Forgotten
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