REVIEW: Losing Face (Matchbox 2023)

Review by Irene Corbett

Photography by Amanda Billing

Nathan Joe’s latest play, Losing Face, successfully blends elements of sci-fi and holiday movies into a forceful and captivating study of the human heart. The project was originally developed under the title Flesh off the Boat as part of Playmarket’s Asian Ink Clinic in 2013 and the revisiting proves rewarding. 

We meet Mark (Andrew Ford) on Christmas Eve as he anxiously tries to make his apartment cosy and festive. He is waiting on a text from his daughter Jennifer (Shervonne Grierson) to let him know her plane has landed, and his partner Shawn (Danny Lam) is getting dressed in the bedroom following some last minute rough and tumble (a staging of gay lust and affection which is joyfully received by the opening night audience). Then a knock on the door – Jennifer has caught an Uber and Mark is caught trying to navigate a year of estrangement and explain a year of new life choices. Swiftly the conversation devolves into emotionally fraught territory and a reset occurs. Mark and Jennifer are then given the chance to start again, and again, and again. 

The director’s note from Sam Phillips acknowledges drawing on both theatrical and filmic lineages (proposed addition to the title Losing Face: Groundhog Gay) and while these influences, present in the time looping structure of the play and a ‘chamber film’ staging, lend the piece a particularly comedic bent, Losing Face stretches far beyond the trite or trope-y. 

Bubbles of grief, anger, and betrayal burst and reform. It is revealed that Jennifer and Shawn have a lot in common, perhaps too much in common for comfort, both being Chinese and in their early twenties. The fluctuating tensions between family ties, culture, and identity buoy the script along. Each permutation offers a new opportunity to needle into the fractured father-daughter relationship, to question Mark’s choice to leave his family, to explore the imbalances in Mark and Shawn’s relationship. Many repetitions are played to laughs, exploring all too familiar expressions of frustration or misunderstanding, others to gasps from the audience as what is said expresses offensive, hurtful, or (in Pākehā Mark’s case) racist sentiments. 

Under the pen of another playwright the resets might have become little more than a frivolous conceit into which the central situation was shoehorned; however, here each new reset becomes akin to the turning of a kaleidoscope. Both subtle and substantial changes to the unfolding script produce shimmering new visions. Nathan Joe’s script is not limited to producing one reading of the characters. Mark is offered more complexity than a single linear narrative might, and Ford delivers some searing monologues as a result. Jennifer is given the space to alternate between grieving the father she knew, celebrating his sexuality, and being enraged on behalf of her mother; Grierson delivers all with a healthy dose of youthful fire. Shawn is offered glimpses of the future, and moments of tenderness, and it is ultimately Shawn who most clearly expresses the anguish of being reduced to one aspect of yourself rather than being loved for the multiplicity you contain.

Amidst such high emotional stakes, Phillips finds moments of calmness and of heightened surrealism, allowing the cast to sink into them rather than treating them as purely comedic relief or brushing over the comparatively mundane. Supporting these moments and further fueling the sci-fi nature of the piece, Jennifer Lal’s lighting design and Shan Yu’s 翁俞珊 set design produce some strikingly cinematic images of doubling – Jennifer multiplies, Jennifer and Shawn become twins, the apartment becomes a series of mirrored halls. The formula does begin to lose momentum in the last third of the play and perhaps some tightening can occur here, but then a temporal leap produces an alternative timeline and new fears and opportunities for healing are presented. 

In the programme Losing Face is likened to the recent runaway success Everything Everywhere All at Once, and this is a fair comparison. Losing Face grapples with the everything bagel that is the human heart and succeeds. It is very Christmassy, very gay, and very much about family – equal parts joyous, frightening, loving, and exposing. 

Losing Face is a great New Zealand play. 

Losing Face plays Q Theatre 9th-19th of August as part of Matchbox 2023

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