Vanessa Bates’ The One, receiving its world premiere at Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre, delves into the nuances of identity through the lens of race, and to a lesser degree sexuality. It’s also incredibly bizarre and funny. In life, as at Jim’s Asian Restaurant & Milk Bar, there are no refunds and you have to make do with what you’re served.
Siblings Mel (Angie Diaz) and Eric (Shan-Ree Tan) are second generation Malaysian-Australians trying to prepare a dinner for their mother’s upcoming birthday. She’s coming back to Australia on a cruise ship to celebrate and reminisce about the years gone by in their old neighbourhood hangout, Jim’s Asian Restaurant (and Milk Bar). Jim’s isn’t what it was back in their youths, but then neither are any of their lives. Mel is trying to decide whether her fiancé Cal is “the one”, while her and Eric wage a cold war to see which one their mother loves more… the older daughter, the younger son, or the pampered pooch. While Eric is wrestling to come out of his quiet, nerdy shell and to balance his Asian heritage with his Australian life.
When The One turns its gaze towards the trials of immigrants and their kids, it is laced with nuance; delving into how each sibling experienced racism differently in their youths and how it has shaped them, stuck between cultures and expectations. Questions are raised and explored. Who are you when you’re not just one thing? When you can be “Australian” or “Asian”, which do you choose? Are you beholden to a culture associated with somewhere you’ve never lived?
The treatment of sexuality is a bit one note by comparison, and that’s a shame. In deliberately swerving away from a potentially more honest (if well-worn) storyline, it ends up feeling a bit over-simplified. I’m keeping things purposefully vague here to avoid any spoilers.
Moments of relatable specificity get great laughs, from their mum Helen (the beloved Gabrielle Chan) criticizing Mel’s “harsh” voice on FaceTime, to the gruff frustration of Jess (Aileen Huynh), the long-suffering manager of Jim’s whose descent into madness is a joy to watch. Throw in a very Australian drag queen, Lazy Susan’ and a hapless, Lego-loving fiancé (Damien Stroutos) and the hilarious moments really stack up.
While The One never quite nails its tonal shifts from outrageous farce to social commentary, it’s a fun night at the theatre with enough grit to sink your teeth into. Come for the spring rolls, stay for the drag show and don’t let the angry waitress bite you on the way out.
By Chad Armstrong