Infectious [by James Wenley]
The comic creation of Renee Lyons, Soo-Young first appeared in her brilliant show Nick: An Accidental Hero, a hospital orderly who narrated the show. It was an oddball choice about for a solo show about a man with locked-in syndrome, but she was an irrepressible and upbeat antidote in a story of adversity. Following up Nick, which toured to the Edinburgh Fringe, is not an enviable task. Inspired by Soo-Young’s wish expressed in that play to tell the story of her life as a musical, we now have this spin off to enjoy (and whether you have seen Nick or not, it stands on its own).
Soo-Young is an affectionate character created from her Lyon’s experiences as an English teacher in South Korea. There are some laughs at Soo-Young’s unique pronunciation of words (and even better – when Soo Young attempts the kiwi accent of an immigration official!) , but Lyons, who writes of her “secret desire that everyone in the world would have a little bit more Soo-Young in them”, successfully resists the caricature.
Soo-Young is excited about the opportunity to tell “the most beautiful story of my life” – popping her head round the heavily sequined curtains as we pop down in her seats – and we are drawn to be excited for her too. She looks absolutely smashing in her sparkling dress. With big vocals and choreographed dance moves (which, I have to say Soo-Young is executed with enthusiasm if not precision) she launches us into her story.
A nurse in Korea, she emigrates to New Zealand after her husband is unfaithful. With very little in the way of a plan (or that matter, a visa), she buys a house, gets a job as a banking call operator, then sets her sights at working at the hospital despite her Korean Nurses registration not being recognised. At the hospital she meets her nemesis Vivian, with a love of red tape, as well as the elderly Mrs Andrew in the oncology ward, who shares a love of Musicals. Like Nick, Soo-Young faces her own kind of adversities, one of life’s good people who is knocked back when she tries to make other’s happy.
The migrant story brings some gentle commentary on New Zealand’s from an outsider’s eye – Soo-Young expresses her joy in song about owning a “stand-arone” house with a superfluous hallway (a room with doors), and her insistence that she is not stupid because she’s a nurse when dealing with bank customers is powerful. More so however her story is an excellent excuse for a number of songs and dances from her call centre experience (“I’m a NZ lady / Make Calls / Get Paidy”) to her love for her adopted dog (woman’s best friend). Alex Taylor provides the live accompaniment on piano, as well as an occasional prop holder. Soo-Young is joined on stage in select numbers by three delightful performers as well as one other scene stealing special guest – I won’t spoil it here, but all their contributions are absolutely charming.
The story does suffer from a ‘this happened- then this happened” style of telling, and it does feel small in scope. Lyon’s allows Soo-Young to have free range, but the character’s brave face and self-editing means we don’t dwell on her pain and we feel like there is more to uncover. It feels like too there is more story before, and after the chapter she has chosen to tell. I’d appreciate knowing more about her life in Korea, and what of her later medical and New Zealand adventures? There are further opportunities to tell us something about our society too if Lyon’s wants to go deeper with this “star” vehicle.
Soo-Young is a marvellous character, a wonderful human being, and a passable singer. Part of her appeal is her “freshness” to performance, making sure we all understand when she is about to play another character. Lyons for her part brings a boundless energy, and a knack for improvised laughs. Ben Crowder brings his eye for mischief and farce as director.
As Soo-Young’s unbridled enthusiasm proves, life’s better as musical.
Soo-Young: The Musical! is presented by Renee Lyons and plays upstairs at The Basement until 5 April. Details see The Basement.