Review by Daz Gale
It’s safe to say 2024 hasn’t got off to the best start when it comes to theatre. This week’s openings have seen a deluge of one and two-star reviews both on this website and around the majority of other reviewers. Could anything break the curse and turn this year around? Step forward, Kim’s Convenience which makes its European premiere at Park Theatre. Would this one prove to be a winner or is this one show that shouldn’t have opened up shop?
Kim’s Convenience was first staged in Toronto in 2011 but may be familiar to more people from the TV series of the same name spawned by the play. Running on Netflix from 2016 – 2021, the story is now going back to its origins in a full circle moment involving writer and star Ins Choi. Set in Canada, the action takes place in Mr. Kim’s shop as he struggles to come to terms with the changing neighbourhood and his family problems as he navigates the differing values between him and his children with the theme of his first-generation immigrant values and how they change through the next generation a key focus of the play,
Ins Choi’s writing is glorious from the first moment. An overlong opening with Mr Kim humming to himself oblivious to the audience surrounding him speaks of the confidence of the source material. As soon as the dialogue begins, it becomes apparent why this confidence is there. Sharp, clever, and observational humour underpins Choi’s writing which masks a more serious message in all the seemingly throwaway one-liners. The way Choi expertly manages to navigate the differing opinions between two generations, with several inappropriate comments from the older one not ever feeling offensive but recognisable, and justified by the voice of reason that is Mr. Kim’s daughter Janet. The programme talks about East and South East Asians being invisible in British Theatre - Kim's Convenience thankfully creates an opportunity to right this wrong, bringing their story front and centre.
Choi’s multilayered writing has no shortage of heart mixed in with its humour. As the story progresses through a pacey singular act, we see the true reasonings behind Mr. Kim’s sometimes brash behaviour as he grapples with his lasting legacy and to find his own “exit plan” – all the while dealing with the events from his past that still haunt his family. The laughs are always apparent, though sometimes take a back seat to let the emotion of the story take centre stage. It is these moments that provides a perhaps surprising moment, culminating in a moving climax that will resonate with audiences, no matter what similarities they have in background or lived experiences.
Esther Jun’s direction makes full use of the Park Theatre’s stage, transforming the intimate space into the interior of Mr Kim’s shop with inspired choices retaining the excitement and interest throughout. Mona Camille’s extensively detailed design doesn’t skimp in its execution of recreating Mr. Kim’s shop, with fully stocked counters and brilliant details painstakingly realised. A truly fantastic set design whose only flaw is the temptation it invokes in audience members to want to grab a chocolate bar from the stage. Jonathan Chan’s lighting design beautifully brings the set to life, while Adrienne Quartly’s sound design and composing get a crowning moment in a beautifully somber and unexpected musical number.
In the original play, writer Ins Choi played Appa’s (Mr Kim) son Jung. Now coming full circle, he is playing Appa in a phenomenally nuanced performance. Nobody knows the intricacies and details of the character better than the writer himself and so we are left to witness a truly remarkable feat of acting. Quite a complex character at times, Choi taps into the comedic moments perfectly, with a fantastic knack for comic timing. It is his abundance of heart and ability to show the true inner workings of Appa through minimal reveals that is a true testament to his brilliance in the role.
Appa’s son Jung is now played by Brian Law in a relatively small but memorable role. Appa’s daughter Janet is a standout in a portrayal by Jennifer Kim in a cocksure performance which perfectly demonstrates the difficulties between forging your path and doing what your family expects of you. As she attempts to break away from the family dynasty, Jennifer delivers a captivating performance. Namju Go’s stage time as Umma may be fleeting but she commands the stage with a strong presence every time. The cast is completed by Miles Mitchell in four very different roles each showing his versatility and strengths as an actor, threatening to steal the scene every time.
I have to admit I had never seen the TV show Kim’s Convenience before. Whether you are a fan of the show or have never even heard of it before should make no difference in your enjoyment of this play. This is down to the intricate and accessible writing which effortlessly connects with the audience regardless of background or relatability in your own story. Deep down, this is a story that has humanity at its centre with a message of family and no shortage of heart. An absolutely wonderful story, in a sometimes trying time for theatre so far this year, Kim’s Convenience is a breath of fresh air. Ins Choi talks about the show being a love letter to all first-generation immigrants who end up calling a foreign land home. Fittingly, this play feels right at home here in its European debut. No exit plan is necessary for this terrific play – let’s hope it doesn’t plan to shut its door any time soon.
Kim’s Convenience plays at Park Theatre until 10th February. Tickets from https://parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/kims-convenience
Photos by Mark Douet