Worth at Arcola Theatre – review

Mingyu Lin’s production runs until 29 April at the north London venue

In Joanne Lau’s play Worth, the Yeung siblings (two brothers and two sisters) and the elder sister’s teenage son gather together for the first time in 18 years prior to their mother/grandmother’s funeral. It soon becomes apparent that all are deeply damaged and, on learning that their mother died with only £44 to her name and a house about to be repossessed, set out on a treasure hunt for the hidden cash. In the process, they relive the trauma they experienced in childhood and beyond and compete over who suffered the worst physical and emotional abuse at the hands of their Chinese immigrant single mother.

Set in a cluttered house in a rapidly gentrifying part of east London, Moi Tran’s set design is the most believable aspect of the production, featuring a front room with an unloved feel filled with outdated appliances and dusty bric-a-brac. We first meet Anthony (Leo Buckley), an absolute horror of a spoilt teenager who treats his mother with utter disdain, and on meeting his uncles and aunt, it becomes clear where he gets it from.

Former neuroscientist and comedian Lau’s writing feels like a particularly shouty episode of EastEnders with a touch of Alan Ayckbourn (“I’m not a racist,” proclaims the self-righteous Ted. “I subscribe to The Guardian!”). Featuring intervals of stylised movement and emphatic red lighting to mark important moments, Mingyu Lin’s cartoonish production results in variable performances as each of the five actors appear to be acting in different plays – perhaps the intention is to emphasise how different siblings can be, but such disparity makes for a disjointed production.  

The women are, on the whole, more believable than the men and Jennifer Lim gives the least showy performance as elder daughter Penny and mother of Anthony, who tries to act as peacemaker. In contrast, Arthur Lee is particularly over-the-top as the flashy, gangster-ish Jacob, a thoroughly nasty drug dealer and domestic abuser recently released from prison. As Ted, the smug, prissy dentist, Stephen Hoo seems to have stepped out of a sitcom of old (it’s also hard to believe that he’s supposed to be younger than Jacob). The cast member who shows the most precision and comic flair is Sara Chia-Jewell as youngest sibling May, who escaped to America where she found Jesus and has been ordained as a minister and exudes a condescending air of martyrdom.

New Earth Theatre was last seen at the Arcola with The Apology, a tribute to the Korean ‘comfort women’ used as sex slaves by the Japanese military during World War II that wasn’t entirely successful theatrically but was sensitively handled and didn’t rely on gruesome details. This offering has no sense of restraint, throwing as much misery at the audience as it can muster. May deems luggage on wheels to be immoral because people should feel the weight of their own belongings and the weight of this family’s problems is too heavy to handle – this play might be worth something if it were approached with nuance and less gratuitous grimness.