What a delightful, joyous and life affirming hoot Miss Peony is.
It concerns the fractious relationship between Chinese grandmother Adeline (Gabrielle Chan) and her 26-year-old granddaughter, Lily (Stephanie Jack).
In her heyday, Adeline won umpteen beauty contests in her native Hong Kong and is still feted for her achievements all these years later.
Lily is an all but friendless loner, who never thought much about her cultural ties.
Photos by Jason Lau
Her family wanted her to be a doctor. Instead, she didn’t go to university and became a bar manager, complete with tattoos.
Now, she is in the throes of packing her belongings because in a week she is set to leave Australia and start her life anew in England.
Her grandmother, whom she calls Poh Poh (which translates to mean grandmother) is on her deathbed.
Poh Poh’s dying wish is for her granddaughter to compete in a community pageant titled Miss Peony Australia.
It is something to which Lily doesn’t give a second thought until Adeline passes away and Poh Poh’s ghost returns to haunt her.
Adeline maintains the only way she can rest in peace and stop following Lily around is if her granddaughter enters and wins the contest.
Further, she promises to tutor Lily to deal with the various elements involved, but even that is derailed.
As Lily moves deeper into the competition, she forms a bond with three other girls, who also make their way through the preliminary rounds.
Mind you, there is no shortage of rivalry and jealousy, which constantly threatens to derail the girls’ link.
Each is intelligent, even if they don’t necessarily present that way at first.
I speak of bogan Sabrina from western Sydney (Mabel Li) and gay Minions’ backpack-wearing academic Joy (Shirong Wu).
And then there is haughty Marcy (Deborah Faye Lee) who uses every available opportunity to promote her family’s business.
Lily doesn’t get off to the best start with Miss Peony Australia producer and compere Zhen Hua (Jeffrey Liu). As it turns out, both have their eyes opened.
Carrying important familial and cultural messaging, Miss Peony is loads of fun and highly entertaining.
It has been beautifully written by Michelle Law (Single Asian Female), who deftly navigates generational change, displacement and intercultural racism.
Characters speak in English, Cantonese and Mandarin, with three sets of surtitles –
English, simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese.
Stephanie Jack makes a fine lead, navigating the contrasting character traits implicit in the role.
Gabrielle Chan brings a no-nonsense approach to her representation of Lily’s dogmatic grandmother.
Mabel Li is a scene stealer, providing laughs aplenty every time she opens her mouth or pulls a face as the rough and ready Sabrina.
There’s a naivete to Shirong Wu’s realisation of Joy, who enters the competition hoping to find a partner.
Deborah Faye Lee’s bravado hides vulnerability as Marcy.
A standout from Jeffrey Liu is his mellifluous singing voice, on show towards the end of Miss Peony.
I should add that popular karaoke numbers provide a warm welcome to patrons entering the theatre.
With a simple but effective set design from Jonathan Hindmarsh (who is also responsible for costuming), Courtney Stewart directs a big-hearted crowd pleaser.
Miss Peony will play Canberra Theatre Centre from 23rd to 26th August, before moving to Illawarra Performing Arts Centre from 30th August to 2nd September.
The Australian tour finishes with shows at Geelong Arts Centre from 6th to 9th September, 2023.