The Sugar-Coated Bullets of the Bourgeoisie (Arcola Theatre)

Modern Chinese history is explored in Anders Lustgarten’s epic new drama

China is a country on a vast scale with a history to match. The last 70 years alone have been seismic: the communist revolution of 1949 left few untouched, its ideal of shared wealth reduced to a wasteland of empty promises and disillusion; decades of mismanaged agriculture and industrial drudgery defined by the sweat of its nominal 'comrades' (or 'aunties and uncles' as the young idealists like to say in this ambitious socio-historical drama).

The Sugar-Coated Bullets of the Bourgeoisie is the project Sinophile Anders Lustgarten has needed to write all his adult life. He knows China well: he has lived there and it was the subject of his advanced studies. Unfortunately, that engagement shines through just a little too fiercely in a well constructed play that makes expert use of an octet of actors but often feels like a dramatised PhD.

Lustgarten strips away the West's hackneyed patina of exoticism by painting a society of earthy peasants who struggle, cuss and suffer like the rest of humanity. His dialogue is crisp and direct, but in a script with more content than a six-episode compression of War and Peace he's been reluctant to leave anything out. The result is excessively didactic: characters are colourful but the onslaught of revolutionary information becomes fuzzy, at least to the uninitiated.

The first act traces life in poverty-stricken Rotten Peach Village as Chairman Mao literally and figuratively transforms the landscape of his country between 1948 and 1960. It's a bit of a pageant; the most effective scenes are those where discord and danger allow for tension, but these sit alongside tracts of background exposition and dramatically sterile conversations about the nature of power. Between them, playwright and director (Steven Atkinson) botch a big set piece, the slaughter of a despised landlord, by locating the interesting stuff offstage. All the audience gets are actors with red hands and shocked looks.

The play's second half, set today, is altogether more lively. It's a political cavalcade that's flavoured with cynicism and humour ("Basic principle of capitalism: only sell the shit you don't need"), and even Cameron's Britain gets it in the neck: "It's brilliant they're the only country that'll sell us stuff without banging on about human rights".

Among the hits and misses there's a camp Mao lookalike, a fake 'Blockberry' phone and a rather tired gag about Southern Rail, plus some touching human episodes involving the elfin Alice Hewkin as an angst-filled teenager.

Atkinson directs with zip and clarity, and the multi-roling actors get plenty to chew on amid Lily Arnold's wraparound two-tier designs. With stand-out performances by Anna Leong Brophy and Louise Mai Newberry, plus a series of scene-stealing cameos from Siu Hun Li (including Chairman Mao himself, both real and fake), the play could scarcely be better done, though it would possess a surer theatricality if Lustgarten had shaped it more boldly. As an allegory, perhaps, or a fable. Maybe a farm where the animals take over.

The Sugar-Coated Bullets of the Bourgeoisie runs at the Arcola Theatre until 30 April. It will play at the HighTide Festival in Aldeburgh from 8-18 September.