When I was a teenager I saw Sybil Thorndyke, Edith Evans and Lewis Casson in Arsenic and Old Lace. When the latter, who must have been in his late eighties, first entered down a staircase he got a respectful, thrilled round of applause. You don’t see or hear that very often but it’s what happened to George Takei, 85, first took the stage at the opening of Allegiance, now running in London for the first time. Yes, this veteran actor is fulfilling a lifelong ambition to be on stage in London and is doing it with dignity and aplomb.
It’s a very attractive, quite traditional musical – more Rogers and Hammerstein than Sondheim with some of the most powerful story telling I’ve seen in new musical theatre for a while. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1942 all Japanese Americans, many of them born in the US, were rounded up, deprived of their property and assets and put in pretty primitive internment camps hundreds of miles away. And for a long time they were not allowed to enlist. This is a shameful, shocking bit of history which, until now, few people have been aware of and it hits especially hard in this show because it reflects Takei’s own story. Born in Los Angeles to a Japanese immigrant father and an American born but Japanese-educated mother, he was 5 when they were arrested at gun point and incarcerated in various concentration camps for the rest of the war.
Takei plays two roles. In the framing device he is a very elderly war hero, Sam, being told that the sister he’s been estranged from for decades has died. Then at the very end he learns the identity of the messenger and has many audience members reaching for tissues. In the central 1940s flashback Takei plays the family grandfather while the excellent Telly Leung gives us the younger Sam. Both roles are very old men and Takei is, obviously, convincing. He has a strong voice, both spoken and sung, and a nice dead pan way of delivering jokes to his loving family who’ve heard them all before. It’s a very warm performance
He is well supported by a talented cast of 14. Amongst these Aynrand Ferrer is outstanding as Sam’s sister Kei – she sings with strength, passion, terrific intonation and her full belt is quite something. She also creates a totally believable character who cares, worries, falls in love and is devastated by the estrangement from her brother. There are noteworthy performances from Megan Gardiner as the nurse in the camp and from Patrick Munday as Kei’s boyfriend, Frankie, who makes different choices from her brother. The marriage proposal duet sung by Ferrer and Munday is especially beautiful with appropriate close harmony.
Charing Cross theatre is configured, for this show, with raked audience seating at both ends and a square playing space in the centre. Director Tara Overfield Wilkinson, who also choreographed the show, makes excellent use of the space so that every inch of it is used to naturalistic effect.
The band, which plays beautifully, is led by Beth Jerem on a balcony overlooking the stage. Lynne Shankel’s orchestrations give us plenty of ethereal Japanese-style flute work and I was faintly amused at composer Jay Kuo’s use of the pentatonic scale to connote a Japanese vibe in “Wishes on the Wind” when the whole cast is at prayer. It’s a simple time-honoured trick but it works every time.
There’s a lot of stage smoke (liquid carbon dioxide) in this show. It is used, quite effectively. to suggest the dreadful dustiness the internees have to deal with in Ohio. I know it isn’t supposed to have any adverse effects on anyone but I’m afraid it makes me cough – and the audience is pretty close to the action in this show. It’s a minor gripe, though.
Love, forgiveness, reconciliation – they’re all here in abundance and that makes Allegiance a very heart warming experience. I hope Takei gets that welcoming applause at every performance. It’s well deserved
- First published by Sardines: https://www.sardinesmagazine.co.uk/review/allegiance/