Review: Wild Goose Dreams (Ustinov Studio)

Hansol Jung’s play receives its UK premiere at the Theatre Royal Bath this winter

London Kim, Crystal Yu, Jon Chew and Momo Yeung in Wild Goose Dreams
London Kim, Crystal Yu, Jon Chew and Momo Yeung in Wild Goose Dreams
© Simon Annand

It seems like North Korea is barely out of the news these days. Practically every week there's yet another missile that's been developed, talk that's collapsed and warning shot that has been fired from one of the world's most unpredictable and secretive countries. Kim Jong-un may be the butt of that Team America joke, but for the people who live in his country, or more specifically, who defect from there, it's no laughing matter.

Yet one of the nice things about Hansol Jung's engaging play, set mainly in the writer's home country of South Korea, is that it focuses on daily worries and hurdles faced by exactly these people, and still admirably balances the horror and humour.

And Jung doesn't stop at North Korea. Wild Goose Dreams is a love story between two lost souls in Seoul and explores the way loneliness eats away at both South and North Koreans. Guk Minsung (played by London Kim) is a Goose Father (the waterfowl of the title): fathers who work in South Korea but who send their wives and children off to study and live abroad to escape the intensity of the South Korean education system. They wire all their money to their families, from their tiny bedsits. Yoo Nanhee (Chuja Seo) has fled the clutches of her overbearing fatherland and is trying to get by in the capitalist south. They meet on the internet.

It's a play that's bursting to the seams with dads. Throughout her waking hours, North Korean defector Yoo Nanhee is haunted by hers and the fact that she left him behind to face who-knows-what as punishment for her defection. And the attempts Guk Minsung makes to connect with his US-based daughter over Facebook are horribly desperate. Guk's a Goose and Yoo's dad is what's known over there as a Penguin Father – a father who doesn't know when he'll see his daughter again.

Why the South Koreans insist on making all these paternal metaphors bird-based, I don't know, but there is poetry in the sense of flying and freedom that the images evoke, despite it feeling a bit clunky here. Jung's play is mostly strong – the dialogue is believable and the story has a real sense of truth about it. But it also ends up trying to be about love, dads, loneliness and politics all at once. The love story between Guk and Yoo is strong enough, but the father threads often threaten to cloud proceedings.

Still, there is a very good cast at play here, working exceptionally hard under Michael Boyd's tight direction. Rick Kiesewetter, as the amiable penguin (often literally) dad, is particularly good, while Seo as Yoo evokes a kooky magnetism very well. But the whole cast respond excellently to the hyper-realistic, hyper-physical direction. There's a fairly drawn-out first section where the two protagonists' digital lives – swipes, notifications, searches, messages and more – are all busily embodied by the ensemble who offer up a cacophony of empty sound and fury. There's too much of it, but Boyd gets the rhythm right.

This is a good play that offers some real insight into two extraordinary countries. It never quite succeeds in becoming a great play, but it's an excellent showcase for a phenomenal cast and definitely not a bird-brained way to spend 90 minutes.