I remember my own upbringing as a second-generation Australian and my high-school self.
I struggled to find my voice and fit in. Despite being Asian, I was no good at math (a racist stereotype that was expected of me), and found myself drawn to literature, art, and music instead. I recall never being able to find a circle of friends to join that I felt comfortable with, often having quiet lunchtimes indoors in the art room and finding that creativity helped me forget about feeling lonely.
Sometimes the past isn’t a great thing to revisit, but it’s important nonetheless to never forget, because our past experiences help shape who we are.
For Lucy, her visit to the past is via a panic attack that transports her into the body of her 15-year-old self. Melbourne Theatre Company’s Laurinda takes us on a rollercoaster adventure through family love, prejudice, 90s music, shameless dancing, schoolyard bullying, racism, and self-love.
Adapted from Alice Pung’s award-winning novel of the same name, written by multi-talented hustler extraordinaire and comedian Diana Nguyen together with director Petra Kalive (who is also Associate Director at MTC), accompanied with Vietnamese dialogue and translations expertly executed by Chi Nguyen, these powerful female voices combine to lovingly tell the tale of a second-generation Australian finding her footing in the ever changing (but possibly not evolving) Australian social landscape.
Spanning an hour and forty minutes, Laurinda never feels like it’s too long or overwhelming. If anything, I found Laurinda to be a thorough immersive experience. From the moment you enter the venue and visit the Wisdom Wall where you respond to the question written in both English and Vietnamese, “What advice would you give your younger self?”, to losing yourself in Vietnamese-Australian high school girl turned teacher, Lucy’s flash-back. Laurinda is a funny (despite the serious topics), smart, and entertaining production.
I applaud the Melbourne Theatre Company for providing an outlet to help Australian stories like Laurinda be told in an Australian mainstage show. This is honestly one of the best, bravest and boldest productions I have seen of MTC’s works thus far. With 7 talented cast members, taking on no less than 17 characters, Laurinda is nothing short of amazing.
Lead by Ngoc Phan in a phenomenal performance as 15-year-old Lucy in the 90s and 38-year-old Lucy in 2021, we follow Phan’s character through everything; whether she’s curled up in foetal position in a public bathroom completely losing the plot, bickering with her mum, or just trying to fit at school. From Phan’s flawless performance, we feel like we know Lucy; she’s our friend, our sister, our brother, our cousin, our auntie, or she is us.
We also feel we know the characters in the show because we grew up around them. The mean collective of students that think they’re better than everyone, the nerdy friend that you’re almost embarrassed to be around but can’t help but love because they have the biggest heart, the awkward classmate that you know if given a bit of polish would have the brightest shine, and the super nice school teacher that was always kind to you and believed in your talents no matter how many times you doubted yourself. These are the characters of Laurinda.
Georgina Naidu acting chops are undeniable as she plays between extremely obnoxious and severely shy very convincingly in her roles as Trisha, Mrs Grey, and Mrs White. Roy Phung plays Lucy’s Dad and teacher Dr Vanderwerp so naturally, it’s like he’s really lived the life of the roles he’s been given.
Fiona Choi is outstanding as both nerdy and friendly Katie, and casually racist Mrs Leslie. The characters could not be more different, yet Choi executes these portrayals effortlessly. It was an absolute delight whenever Choi would take the stage and she is very much the glue of this production that holds the cast together.
Gemma Chua-Tran is super impressive as both Brodie and Linh to the point that it’s hard to believe this production is her theatre debut. With more past work on-screen than on-stage, I only hope that after this incredible performance, there will be more stage plays starring Chua-Tran in the not-too-distant future. Chua-Tran’s performance in this production is pure fire, in the best possible way.
Jenny Zhou is excellent as characters Tully and Chelsea, but I was most impressed with her role as Mrs Newberry. The way she changed between all the characters, not just the costuming (which helped), but the different accents, the mannerisms, and the way she held herself, these performances were seamless, and it was never difficult to know which character she was playing.
Chi Nguyen’s skilful performance as Amber and Charlotte are great, but it is her captivating and heart-warming performance as Lucy’s Mum that not only could have fooled me to have been played by a completely different actor, but it moved me to tears.
Combined, the chemistry between Chua-Tran, Zhou, and Nguyen as The Cabinet, the trio are a dynamic and intimidating force to be reckoned with that would rival the likes of The Plastics in Mean Girls, and The Heathers in the 1988 Winona Ryder cult classic. My 15-year-old self wouldn’t want to mess with them, and my current self would want to crack it and scold them until I’d lose my breath.
Despite being non-linear, Laurinda is never too difficult to follow, even with the Vietnamese dialogue which actually enhances the storytelling and sincerity of this production. The production is further perfected by the expertise of the crew including the talents of Karine Larché’s vibrant costuming, Eugyeene Teh’s stylish set design, AV concept and design, Justin Gardam’s AV design, and Rachel Lee’s lighting design which often at times felt like an additional character of the story. The set also feels both thoughtfully futuristic and yet nostalgic at the same time. I even loved the use of the Lion Dancing drumming audio in the show by Marco Cher-Gibard, who is both the composer and sound designer.
Diana Nguyen and Petra Kalive have conjured a completely powerful, culturally clever, and respectful Asian-Australian story that had me nodding, crying, and fist-pumping in my seat. I very felt seen. This show contains a very relatable story for all second-generation Australians, regardless of race, and should be seen by everyone.
Laurinda is a love letter to our parents for their choices and sacrifices that helped us grow up with the freedoms and opportunities they did not have, but desired for us. And it is a respectful, understanding warm hug to our younger selves, acknowledging that the mistakes we’ve made have helped us become who we are today.
Looking back at my past high-school self, I may have felt like a loner. But when bumping into an old high school classmate one day, she told me that she remembered me differently. She said that I was popular, that I knew everyone, that I never stayed in one group and flitted about everywhere.
And you know what? She was right. We both were.
If you’re only going to watch one play this year, it needs to be this one.
Melbourne Theatre Company‘s Laurinda is now playing at Southbank Theatre until the 10th of September and is a must-see production.
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Photography by Jeff Busby.