Sunday, 22 January 2023

REVIEW: Allegiance at the Charing Cross Theatre

There are significant moments in history that are not taught in schools or generally known in the public domain, somehow, they’ve been conveniently erased. Worldwide screen and stage icon George Takei is determined that his family's story is not forgotten, a story that happened to over 120,000 people living in America who were of Japanese origin. Thanks to Mr. Takei, their story is being told in the form of a musical that has arrived in the West End for the New Year. After a triumphant world premiere in San Diego, a run on Broadway and various worldwide productions, it finally lands in London’s Charing Cross Theatre. As a self-confirmed Anglophile, George announces in the show’s programme that performing on a London stage has been a lifelong ambition that he at last gets to live out.

Upon arrival into the auditorium the faint sound of a stereo plays in the background and the stark stage gives several clues to the ominous nature of the upcoming action. To the side of the stage are several wooden poles topped with strips of barbed wire. The theatre has members of the audience on both sides of the stage giving the feeling of being in the round, this helps to enhance the overall experience. 

The musical starts in what appears to be the present day, with Takai playing the older version of the central character, Sam Kimura. We find that Sam is looking back on his life after an abrupt reminder of his past arrives at his door. A young lady appears to tell him that his sister has died, a sister he has not seen for 50 years. This revelation causes Sam to reminisce about the past and lets the audience discover what led to this moment.

The action transports us back to 1940’s California as we meet a community of both Japanese immigrants and American born residents of Japanese heritage. Everyday life is happening through food, work, friends and family. Telly Leung takes over the centre action as the young ambitious Sammy Kimura who is restless for excitement. He lives with his father Tatsuo, Masashi Fujimoto and sister Kei, Aynrand Ferrer, a role that was played on Broadway by musical theatre icon Lea Solonga. Takei then adopts his second role in the musical as he portrays Sam’s wise and charming Grandfather Ojii-Chan. Throughout the story Ojii-Chan offers wise words of positivity despite all odds. 

Even though the residents have adopted life in America their Japanese roots and traditions are upheld, this is demonstrated in the ensemble number, “Wishes on the Wind”. On a certain day of the year wishes are written on a paper tag and hung on a tree (The previously mentioned barbed wire poles) The poles serve as a foreboding message of what the future holds. The lives of all the characters are about to change drastically. 

The audience then learns the shocking page of history that occurred after the events of Pearl Harbour. As a consequence of this dramatic event all residents of Japanese descent, including American citizens were overnight considered to be enemies and classified as “aliens”. Without warning all rights were taken away as families were forced to be imprisoned in military area camps over several states. 

The harshness of life in these camps is portrayed chillingly as innocent American citizens were taken away against their will and treated without any respect or dignity. Forced to use communal toilets and change in front of each other, to share bedrooms and flea ridden beds. To make things worse the dust from the local mountains caused severe air pollution adding to the inhumane conditions. The song “Gaman”, initiated by Ojii-Chan reinforces the motto of the musical, “We will get through this”, a message of holding on to the light in the darkest of times. Ojii-Chan proves that even when things seem impossible there is always hope. Despite doubt from everyone he manages to make a garden patch in unlikely conditions. 

Representing workers in the camp, Megan Gardiner plays the sympathetic nurse Hannah Campbell who falls in love with Sammy. Mark Anderson plays, amongst various other roles, the menacing Private Knight who displays with menace the way the unwilling residents were looked down on. 

A special mention to the choreography from the director Tara Overfield Wilkinson. For a relatively small space the whole cast dance through the numbers with great passion adding layers to the performance. At times it can be tricky to sing and dance after portraying upsetting moments but this was handled well and with the right amount of sensitivity. 

The overall charm comes from the effortlessly lovable George Takei who brings so much soul to the story. Knowing that he’s made it his mission for this brushed over part of history to not be forgotten and for the people that experienced it including his own family to be remembered makes the performance extra special. Noticeably there weren't many dry eyes in the house as the action came to its conclusion. As George Takei came out for his bow I couldn’t help but rise to my feet and the warmth towards him from the audience was so clear. As he says in the programme, he wants stories like this to be a reminder for history to not repeat itself. He also wants the story to work as a message that at the worst of times human spirit can overcome extreme adversity. 

Review by Myles Ryan 

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: Stalls L7 | Price of Ticket: £68

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