Shangri-La (Finborough Theatre)

The world premiere of Amy Ng’s play exploring cultural tourism

Amy Ng has drawn on her own personal experiences as a tour guide to write this honest and compelling play about Tibet. As bus loads of tourists rally to visit the Himalayan foothills in a province renamed 'Shangri-La’, the locals are forced to either protect their heritage, or exploit it to make a living.

It is a funny and compelling full length debut from Ng, whose knowledge of working life in Tibet put her on the front foot before the play began. Londoners know little about Tibetan tourism, so her revelations are exciting and feel fresh. Ng has developed a play with a rich and diverse set of characters, where personalities are the driving force. We follow Bunny, a Tibet local and on-off disgruntled Himalayan tour guide, as she experiences breaking her first cultural taboo, and gets interested in photo journalism.

Bunny is as confused about her allegiances as the American millionaire lady who comes to practise yoga and find herself spiritually in the Tibetan foothills.

Director Charlotte Westenra has developed a simple-looking play, with well-paced scenes that pivot from era to era. We dash from the Tibetan mountains, to art galleries and yurts with "such a small carbon footprint", says the US lady. We hear exchanges from a teenage Bunny, then her modern adult counterpart, giving Ng's story breadth and depth. Extracting biography from herself, most scenes draw either on 2001 (when Ng was fourteen) or 2014 (when Ng was a tour guide). The play uses Ng's experiences as a barometer for Bunny’s coming-of-age.

Swerving politics and big discussions about sustainability, Shangri-La instead conveys the difficulties bought about by mass tourism by introducing a set of case studies. Bunny (Julia Sandiford) and her Tibetan colleague Karma (Andrew Koji) hilariously speak in fake ‘authentic’ accents for the benefit of US holidaymaker Sylvia (Rosie Thomson). These comic exchanges, in the style of Much Ado‘s Beatrice and Benedict, dose the Tibetan plight with humour and humility.

Rosie Thomson is best as the exasperated Sylvia from New York, ruffling local's feathers, desperate for enlightenment and intimacy.

The play looks (and in its themes of otherness, feels) like a scaled-down version of Danny Boyle’s film The Beach. But all is not lost and this is not dystopian. Amy Ng’s play is tantalisingly close to her subject – she is a part of the Tibetan struggle. This type of intimacy and exclusivity is always a powerful thing to stage.

Shangri-La runs at Finborough Theatre until 6 August.