Review: The Good Person of Sichuan by Bertholt Brecht, and Man to Man by Manfred Karge at Colchester Mercury, both until October 19.

The Good Person of Sichuan by Bertholt Brecht at Colchester Mercury

The Good Person of Sichuan by Bertholt Brecht at Colchester Mercury - Credit: Archant

The Good Person of Sichuan by Bertholt Brecht at Colchester Mercury and Man to Man by Manfred Karge at the Mercury Studio both until October 19.

The Good Person of Sichuan by Bertholt Brecht at Colchester Mercury

The Good Person of Sichuan by Bertholt Brecht at Colchester Mercury - Credit: Archant

Two plays inspired by a remarkable true story are playing alongside one another in the same theatre for the very first time. They are quite different in almost every respect except that both feature a woman who must pretend to be a man in order to survive.

While Karge tells the original tale with its roots in Nazi Germany, Brecht jettisons the audience into a rundown Sichuan of the future where the divide between the have’s and have not’s is not very clear because the have’s don’t have much either.

Three gods on a visit to earth in search of good people to reward, ignore the truth of poverty and only a hotbed of wickedness. But they are eventually persuaded that Shen Te, one of the local tarts, is at least fairly good and they set her up in a little business.

The gods are a hapless trio but they are right about Shen Te. She is good - so kind and generous in fact that people take advantage of her. She’s quickly surrounded by family and local hangers-on and things get so bad that Shen Te sends for her ruthless male cousin Shui Ta to help her.

Shui Ta, swaggering in a suit and trilby and talking like an East End barrow boy - but looking remarkably like Shen Te - soon puts the riff-raff to flight. Shen Te then comes back to run the shop and Shui Ta steps in occasionally when tough business is needed.

Tanya Franks switches clothes with aplomb and presents two nicely different characters, one naïve and vulnerable, the other confident with just an edge of menace. It all slots into a sort of bad dream fantasy that has impotent gods floating through scenes of despair that we can already recognize.

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The play is well-acted by a large cast. It is dramatic, colourful and full of wry, cynical humour with several good songs. But this Sichuan is not for the fainthearted. It’s a place where love cannot conquer all, where dope provides the only means of escape for many.

It is a Brecht warning that civilized societies must find a way to share the spoils more evenly or this is tomorrow’s world for us all.

Man to Man in the Mercury Studio is something of a tour de force for Tricia Kelly who carries us on a mind-bending tour through the extraordinary tough life of Ella Gericke.

To have work in Hitler’s 1930s Germany is gold dust and, when her husband Max dies of cancer, the young Ella is not going to let it slip through her fingers and join the hungry thousands. She cuts off her hair, puts on Max’s trousers and, with good luck and guile, takes over his job as a crane driver. She morphs into a man.

It is a subterfuge she is forced to continue for long years and, in a moving solo performance, Tricia Kelly takes us through the retrospective true-life terrors and little triumphs of a woman playing a man in a bitter man’s world.

Some of it is explicit, a lot of it quite harrowing but it is not without good moments of humour, especially when she swaps clothes again and uses her womanly wiles to score small sexual victories. She also keeps a rabbit’s foot ‘codpiece’ down the front of Max’s longjohns to fool any wondering wandering hands.

This is a woman who will kill if she has to in a remarkable tale of near misses and misadventures. It’s amazing how she’s got away with it - but it comes with a cost. The older Ella is lost, partly in beer and schnapps, but mostly because, although she knows she is a woman deep down, time has stolen her identity. She has escaped from a cruel world into an aberrant, angry prison of her own making. David Henshall.

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