nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
June 15, 2007
Set in Hong Kong during the years leading up to the 1997 transition from British colony to Chinese rule, Happy Valley takes its title from the Hong Kong neighborhood in which its central characters reside. It's ironic as well, of course, because at least in this particular historical moment, the upper-middle-class British-educated Hong Kong Chinese who live there aren't particularly happy; they're riddled with anxiety and terrified as to what this change in government will mean for them. The Chinese characters spelling "Happy Valley" (at least according to Wikipedia) literally mean "horse racing ground"—also relevant here, since the Happy Valley racecourse is the primary bonding ground for the adolescent Tuppy and her uncle and guardian Chester, a horse trader for the upper-class British of Hong Kong. Chester and Tuppy always spend her birthday at the racetrack.
Although the Filipina nanny Winnifreda is the primary parent in this household (mothering Chester and Tuppy alike), Tuppy retains a child's hero-worship of her uncle. A lonely and seemingly friendless child, Tuppy's only close connections are Winnifreda, Chester, and her beloved pet chinchilla (a gift from Chester), and she needs constant reassurance that Chester loves her best. Perhaps unwisely but understandably, Chester spins stories for Tuppy designed to make her feel special—rather than orphaned and in the care of a somewhat feckless adult—most notably that she's really the illegitimate daughter of Queen Elizabeth, placed in Hong Kong as part of a secret plan to retain British power after the handover.
Many Hong Kong Chinese are leaving for Britain in the time running up to the handover, but Chester is determined to stay. But as the day nears, and his British contacts and clients are disappearing one by one, Chester starts to feel desperate. So when he encounters Victoria, the mainland-born Chinese secretary of one of his departed British clients, who is herself desperate—for a wealthy husband—a partnership that is half business, half sex is born. Then Victoria becomes pregnant, Chester marries her, and Tuppy's world cracks open at the seams. The frantic pace of the collapse of Chester's business only exacerbates the tension between Tuppy and Victoria—despite the Chinese contacts he gains through Victoria—and hastens his decision to leave Hong Kong for good.
There's a lot of interesting material here about the class dynamics among the different social levels in Hong Kong—the British, the Hong-Kong born Chinese who consider themselves British, the mainland-born Chinese trying to carve a professional foothold for themselves in this place of wealth and power, the peasant girls from the mainland trying to find husbands among the British and Hong-Kong Chinese, and finally, at the bottom of the heap in Hong Kong as they are everywhere else, the immigrant workers, like Winnifreda, who've left their own families behind to serve the rich in another country.
Aurorae Khoo's script conveys a lot of information about the scene in Hong Kong at that moment, but the characters and their relationships aren't particularly compelling. Although the play takes place over an extremely eventful period of over a year, there doesn't seem to be any change or growth in the characters, even with the major change in the family dynamics caused by Chester's marriage. Most of the second act is taken up by spiteful encounters between a petulant Tuppy and a childish Victoria. Winnifreda, with her keen understanding of the power dynamics that shape her life, and her constant attempts to bring peace between Victoria and Tuppy, becomes the most interesting character in the play—she's also the only one who seems to have emotional impact on the other characters.
Some of the performances are quite strong; Katie Leo, who has cameos as both Queen Elizabeth and the dying Deng Xiao Ping as well as playing Victoria, is bracing as Victoria and extremely funny in her smaller roles, and Maria Kelly brings a touching warmth to Winnifreda. But even strong acting can't overcome the listlessness of the characterizations. I learned a lot about the social structure of Hong Kong from Happy Valley, but I didn't feel connected emotionally to the play.