Rice at the Orange Tree Theatre – review

Michele Lee’s one-act play has its world premiere

Yvette (Sarah Lam) and Nisha (Zainab Hasan)
Yvette (Sarah Lam) and Nisha (Zainab Hasan)
© Helen Murray

Michele Lee's one-act play, from the promo and an informative page in the programme, suggests it will literally be about rice – the people who are dependent on it and the culture surrounding it. Instead, it attempts to tackle a host of other issues – which do not necessarily get the attention they deserve in the 90-minute piece, co-produced by the Orange Tree and Actors Touring Company.

Nisha (Zainab Hasan) is an executive officer of Golden Fields, an Australian rice import company. She's the kind of businessperson who eats three takeaway meals a day at her desk, says she is a "modern evolved farmer" (a genuinely funny moment) and plans to expand the company to India (where her family originates). Yvette (Sarah Lam) is her Chinese migrant cleaner, an older figure who is supposed to be quiet and do her job, but has her own entrepreneurial ambitions and becomes more entangled with Nisha's life, while having her own familial problems to deal with.

Mother-daughter struggles, relationships, a sense of purpose in career, capitalism and how global majority women are treated are all explored. It's certainly interesting, with the two actors playing the whole company of the characters, but it feels as though there are too many threads. Some compelling ones, particularly the family relationships, are not given enough room – meaning there is little pay-off in what should be quite emotional scenes. Xia's direction is at times knowingly performative – Nisha's main move is exaggeratedly smug crossed arms, a microphone is pulled out to read a message though never to be used again – before snapping to something more natural.

Hyemi Shin's set is all corporate white, with an economical desk containing a screen, a toilet, and plenty of takeaway boxes. A stair-shaped flashing panel indicates an office elevator. It perfectly allows the action to move between various locations. Side note: does every show at the Orange Tree have to feature water?

This is a good play with some solid performances, accompanies by genuinely funny moments – though some are quite cruel. The one image that sticks is a quiet moment of the pair of women sharing a tub of food: Yvette eats with chopsticks while Nisha uses a white plastic spoon.