Another striking play in The Shed at The National

The Shed | By Xenobe Purvis
Three Stars

A MAN describes the taste of pigeon excrement, his wife gives birth, praying with every eye-popping push that her child will be a son, and a newly-born daughter is thrown to the slop bucket, all within the space of ten minutes. Welcome to The World of Extreme Happiness, written by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig and newly-produced at the National Theatre’s temporary venue, The Shed.

From this assault of an opening the narrative navigates its way through important themes, charting the life of Sunny (played by Katie Leung), a Chinese peasant girl turned migrant worker who moves to a factory to fund her younger brother’s education. Motivated by their father’s stultifying lack of ambition, Sunny and her brother dream of change, and this desire is revisited in the self-improvement of their many fellow migrants who attend amusing, cult-like night classes on self-worth and social etiquette. Through sheer determination (and shameless sexual favours), Sunny is given the professional opportunities she craves, only realising too late that the makeover for which she has long hungered is not as fulfilling as she had hoped. This disillusionment is insisted on a little crudely: a self-help disciple who does not land her dream job slits her wrists, a worker on strike is bulldozed down while another commits suicide, and Sunny’s brother is beaten and urinated on upon moving to the city. Cowhig’s eye-opening criticism of the state of contemporary China is not lost in all the noisy emphasis, however, and the plight of Sunny and her compatriots as their dreams swell and ebb is a moving one.

The World of Extreme Happiness takes a microcosmic look at the last two decades of Chinese history, and the handful of characters upon which it focuses are lent pathos by an ensemble of talented actors. Katie Leung is particularly compelling as a spirited Sunny, sensitively conveying the mixed emotions that come with her success. She is supported by a fantastic cast who shift effortlessly between social classes, sliding from coarseness to glib city speak with ease. Director Michael Longhurst makes clever use of limited stage-space, filling The Shed’s intimate auditorium with action occurring on several levels. Meanwhile, Max and Ben Ringham’s sound design – which has felt heavy-handed elsewhere – is fitting in this production, blending well with the loud industrialism of a set.

True to its name, The World of Extreme Happiness does not do things by half. It may lose points for lack of subtlety – but perhaps the messages expressed here deserve to be shouted about.