3 February 2023
ALLEGIANCE (Charing Cross Theatre) Review
“American History”, as a subject taught in American schools, is a bit of a hit-and-miss in terms of what gets covered in great detail and what gets glossed over. That said, presumably the same is true of a lot of histories in a lot of countries that have some shameful past. During World War II, America put most of its Japanese population into internment camps, supposedly to ensure that people of Japanese heritage wouldn’t sabotage the American efforts once Japan joined the war. Promoted as lovely relocation communities, they were really holding camps with appalling conditions in undesirable locations.
George Takei (who will be 86 in a few months!) and his family were forced to move in 1942 from their home in California to an internment camp in the swamplands of Arkansas. His family was able to move back to California after the war, but they had no money, no bank accounts, no jobs, and no housing at that point. Allegiance isn’t the story of Takei’s family as such, but it is certainly inspired by his experiences. The main characters are brother and sister Sammy and Kei Kimura, who end up in an internment camp with their father, grandfather (played by Takei), and most of their community from home. Sammy falls in love with Hannah, a “typical American” blonde slender nurse at the camp and eventually enlists in the army once Japanese men are allowed to join the Armed Forces. Kei falls in love with Frankie, a Japanese young man she meets at the camp, who is a conscientious objector and encourages other men at the camp to burn their draft notices. The ideology lines get drawn and redrawn over family lines, and Sammy never speaks to Kei again for the rest of his life. (Don’t worry, this is not a spoiler, old Sammy saying he hasn’t spoken to Kei for over 50 years is the 5th or so line in the show.)
Takei has a bunch of cute and clever one-liners and is your classic comic relief grandpa. It’s charming, but it also comes off a little weird. Telly Leung and Aynrand Ferrer (as Sammy and Kei, respectively) are an absolute joy to watch and can certainly belt out the big numbers. In fact, the whole cast is terrific and very-very capable both in terms of acting and singing.
Here is my problem with the show though… It is serious subject matter. In fact, after the show Takei said that part of the reason he conceived the show was to right the wrong and ensure that people, young and old, know of this terrible mistreatment of his people by the American political machine in the 1940s. But the play loses most of its bite because it’s a cheery musical with lots of laughs and comedy lines. There is a scene where, mid-celebration, people hang wish notes on tree branches. It’s all “happy-happy joy-joy”. In the next scene, the trees are transformed into barbed wire poles locking the very same people inside the internment camps. But, as it’s all happening with a song and a dance, I caught myself thinking, “wow, what a brilliant transformation and a clever use of props” and not, “what a horrible thing is happening”. I get it: a musical lets you hop from scene to scene like a bunch of little vignettes. And yes, I saw Miss Saigon on Broadway in the 1990s yet don’t recall thinking that a musical wasn’t the right medium for that story. For whatever reason, Allegiance is just too cheery and too chirpy, and so its message evaporates by the time the audience exit the theatre.
An extra shout-out to Rachel Jayne Picar, who is part of the ensemble, but has a very emotional scene with Takei at the very end of the show. A good chunk of the audience were crying their eyes out, and Picar herself was giving it her all, so much so that she was still wiping her eyes at the curtain call.
My biggest complaint, however, is with the sound, which does seem to be recurring theme at Charing Cross, seeing as things haven’t improved since I saw Violet here 4 years ago (how time flies!). It is a fairly small theatre, but the music was SO loud, as if the band was playing live at Hyde Park or Wembley. I genuinely wished for ear plugs 10 minutes into the show and had to take a headache pill in the intermission and one more after the show. It’s a vicious cycle: the band is loud, the actors have to shift from singing to screaming to be heard over the music, and then the band plays even louder. Surely Tara Overfield Wilkinson, the director, would’ve sat in the audience and some point and worked out that the sound volume can be cut by a significant margin… And then there were screens… There are 2 monitors in two corners just off the stage so that the cast can see music director. However, because the theatre is arranged in a round, you cannot help but have one of the two monitors in your field of vision. It was really distracting and a bit annoying; shame they couldn’t make it work for the cast without having them at such a disagreeable angle.
On balance though, it’s a good show, and it’s worth seeing in the cheapest price range.
Cheapskate enjoyment value: £8.