Miss Peony

Natasha Ciesielski
31st Jul 2023

Miss Peony is an incredible multi-lingual play about culture, acceptance and prejudices in Australia told through a comedic beauty pageant.

Against her feminist ideals, Lily (Stephanie Jack) is compelled by her grandmother’s death bed wish for her to enter the Chinese beauty pageant, Miss Peony. With her soul at risk, Adeline (Gabrielle Chan) haunts, taunts and eventually helps Lily, to compete for the crown.

Lily’s three competitors are caricatured cultural stereotypes: brainy Joy (Shirong Wu), family business entrepreneur Marcy (Deborah Faye Lee) and stereotypical Western Sydney ethnic Asian Sabrina (Mabel Li). Each equally entertaining as the demonstrate their pageantry pride with over-the-top performances and perfect comedic timing.

A first for Sydney, the dialogue is performed in English, Cantonese, and Mandarin. Surtitles, played concurrently, are used in simplified and traditional Chinese and English, allowing the performance to be accessible to a broader audience than has traditionally been the case.

Michelle Law decided to write this play in three languages after her grandmother watched her first play Single Asian Female (2017) but couldn't understand the dialogue.

Whilst some of the Chinese jokes flew over my head, including derogatory colloquialisms such as ‘fob’ (fresh off boat), my Chinese/Australian friend laughed. Equally there were times I would laugh and my friend didn’t. Not only was the play format inclusive but Law’s comedic script ensured all of the audience had points they could relate to.

Law plays into Chinese/Australian stereotypes with tongue-in-cheek entertainment. Stand-out performer Mabel Li (Sabrina) with her exaggerated Western-Sydney accent had the audience laughing as soon as she opened her mouth with her: "Oh ma gaw, maaate”.

Set and costume designer Jonathan Hindmarsh shows character’s personalities with suitable and at times exaggerated costumes, from Western-Sydney’s Sabrina in her athletic wear, to Marcy in her business attire and Joy as the baby of the group with her schoolgirl anime look.

Law pairs with Director Courtney Stewart once again for Miss Peony. The two having previously worked on Single Asian Female and Top Coat. Stewart calls this play: ‘A love letter to Chinese women all over the world’. Explaining Miss Peony taps into the trauma of experiencing exclusion from all sides - unspoken judgement and elitism even from our own peoples.

But Miss Peony isn’t about assimilating, it’s a modern story about self-acceptance and finding ones self in among a rich tapestry of Chinese culture, in Australian society.

Whilst the script is the plays strength, you certainly couldn’t fault the acting. Each performer was captivating and perfect for their part. Impressively, all of the actors were bilingual or trilingual and able to easily respond in multiple languages flawlessly.

Miss Peony has it all, uproariously funny, a thought-provoking intelligent script and brilliant performances; it even throws in some singing and dancing. Highly recommend.

Miss Peony will now tour Melbourne, Canberra, Wollongong and Geelong.

Photo by Daniel Boud