By Adam Rafferty
Developed as part of MTC’s Next Stage program, Laurinda is a brand-new stage play based on Alice Pung’s popular 2014 Young Adult novel of the same name. Although the title may sound like it’s the name of the story’s protagonist, it’s in fact the designation of a fictional elite private school for girls – I’ll let you decide if it might be based on a local school with a similar moniker.
The protagonist of the story is in fact Lucy Lam, a scholarship student in the 1990s, who has to navigate the intricacies of the school’s teaching faculty and the ‘cool’ group of girls, known as ‘The Cabinet’ whose inherited privilege allows them to rule both the classroom and staff room.
If you’re sensing shades of ‘The Plastics’ from Mean Girls, or the titular Heathers from the film of the same name, you’re spot on. Pung’s story borrows heavily from this well-worn trope. Unexpectedly, this adaptation also has shades of another film comedy – 1991’s Drop Dead Fred – with its use of the return of an imaginary childhood friend/alter-ego.
Writers Diana Nguyen and Petra Kalive have decided to bookend the story with the Lucy Lam of 2021, having a meltdown in the bathrooms of an award ceremony where she’s about to be given a prize for her work in education, only to see one of ‘The Cabinet’, who is now a Chief Justice, at the same event. This crisis of confidence causes her to manifest Linh, a banana costume wearing, neon-haired extrovert who exists only in her mind. Linh sends Lucy back in time to her days at Laurinda, to force her to confront the experiences of intimidation, condescension, and humiliation she experienced in her youth. (Nguyen and Kalive have their own filmic comparison – Freaky Friday – but I think that influence, seen through the lens of the Asian experience, is more clearly paralleled by Michelle Law’s Top Coat, a recent Sydney Theatre Company commission).
At Laurinda, casual racism is rife, and the tendency of both teachers and students, good and bad alike, is to look down on the girl from the poor suburb whose been given a ‘leg-up’. The Cabinet is made up of queen bee Brodie, and her cronies Amber and Chelsea, whose ‘mean girl’ behaviour is so entrenched and underhanded it’s difficult for the teachers, and Lucy, not to acquiesce to their power. When acceptance by the trio is granted, well of course it’s difficult not to assimilate.
Ngoc Phan brings charming silliness and palpable panic to the role of Lucy, and balances her scenes of frustration, with both the school faculty and her family with sensitivity. Fiona Choi shows great range as both the good-girl Katie and culturally appropriating Mrs Leslie. Gemma Chua-Tran is a standout in the dual roles of bigger-than-life Linh and conniving Brodie. Jenny Zhou nails Chelsea’s school-girl vocal-fry and Chi Nguyen bounces quickly from Amber’s cattiness to the hardworking migrant that is Lucy’s mum.
There is a lot of doubling in the cast, often playing both white and Asian roles, making the delineation sometimes difficult to perceive, although perhaps Asian viewers will pick up the differences in characterisation more readily. Lucy’s mum speaks almost exclusively Vietnamese, with a few English words interspersed to help provide some intent, but without sur-titles one can’t help but feel the non-Vietnamese language speakers in the audience are missing out on some important parts of the performance.
Petra Kalive’s direction brings the story to life beautifully – perhaps by benefit of having a hand in the writing also. Audio visual projections and lighting tricks make for some excellent transitions and psychedelic fun from the mischievous Linh character, thanks to Eugyeene Teh, Rachel Lee, Marco Cher-Gibard and Justin Gardam. Karine Larché’s fun costumes make nods to the story’s filmic inspirations, with colour-coded stockings in the school uniforms, a ’la Heathers, and slutty, animal-inspired party costumes akin to Mean Girls.
There are moments the play feels like it might have been too slavish to its source material as talky scenes bog down the pace, and at times the cast get carried away by the playfulness of the story bringing an overly exaggerated unsubtle tone to the piece.
While perhaps aimed most clearly at a young adult and Asian-Australian audience, there’s something in Laurinda for everyone and the story is never anything less than good fun.
Images: Jeff Busby