Review by Harry Bower
What could you buy with £44? Well, since you asked – you could purchase a smart watch from Argos or a decent seat at most West End shows for that price (though perhaps not as much these days). What you can’t do with £44, it turns out, is please an entire family who are expecting significantly more than that as their inheritance.
That is the circumstance the Yeung family siblings find themselves in, gathered for the first time in 18 years. In their family home they sit and reminisce, watching the clock tick down to the funeral of their mother – a complicated figure in their lives. With half the siblings having contributed significantly to the life and upkeep of the head of their family, it’s more than a shock to realise that she has only £44 to her name and has lost ownership of their house. Thus ensues the reignition of decades old sibling rivalry, tension, and resentment, resulting in a search for the missing cash, presumed to be hidden in sentimental places around the home.
Present are Penny (Jennifer Lim), the divorcee mother of Anthony (Leo Buckley), the eldest grandchild played as the archetypal moody teenager listening to music and being angry at his mum for, well, just existing. Eldest son and frankly terrifyingly convincing psychopath Jacob (Arthur Lee) has been released from prison and thrives on winding up his siblings, but has a cold and ruthless streak too which, once revealed, dominates the plot. Second eldest Ted (Stephen Hoo) holds a strong façade of confidence in everything he does, and ‘baby’ of the group, overachieving Doctor and Reverend May (Sara Chia-Jewell) is the youngest-child-syndrome sister who has emigrated to America, completing this strong cast of five.
Each of the characters is so well rounded it feels the layers never stop peeling as in each scene more family trauma or conflict is unearthed. The dialogue is sitcom worthy; it is a hugely funny with jokes aplenty, bitingly sarcastic, and has an aggressively direct style of writing which draws its audience in in its first act before slamming the hammer down in the second. There have been so many great sibling rivalry stories on the small screen recently, most notably HBO’s Succession, and there are similarities between the characters and their relationships here. That’s huge credit to Joanne Lau and the creative team for not just creating authentic characters but crafting genuinely unlikable personalities which exude hate and resentment in a way that is entertaining rather than depressing.
The siblings begin searching for the money, tearing the house apart. In the process each sibling airs or begins the healing from their family trauma. The characters achieve that to varied success and once £18,000 is recovered the crescendo of the show is reached when it’s time to work out what to do with the money. Predictably this goes spectacularly wrong and without ruining it for those reading, there are several open-mouthed moments of shock and disbelief in what is unfolding on the stage in front of our eyes.
While well written, the plot would have nowhere near the impact it does without a stellar cast. For me the standout performance is by Buckley, as Anthony the teenager. Despite probably the smallest dialogue-driven role, he is onstage the entire show and steals attention at times he has no right to. His body language and emotional torment across his face throughout the show was a delight to watch, and it is the show’s final scene in which he really shines, giving a passionate and committed rebuttal of all that the character has learned in the preceding two hours. The character acts as the arbiter of truth, an extension of the audience looking in on the family. Lee, as dangerously funny Jacob, is staggeringly evil and exceptionally convincing at being thoroughly unpleasant – something hopefully the actor has worked hard at (it’s paying off). A mention also for Chia-Jewell whose May is in a perpetual state of selfish introversion. Her hard-centred performance which applies just the right amount of emotional stoicism paired with some wicked comic timing and an impressive commitment to her role. You really must admire the work of the casting team – they nailed it.
The set is homely with attention to detail everywhere you look, evidence of a long life being literally torn apart and exposed. In thrust the staging is intrusive, with audience seated very close to the action, so much so that some of the physical theatre in the piece has varying levels of impact depending on the sightline of where you’re sat. Thankfully Mingyu Lin’s bold direction is intelligent and purposeful, exposing the depth and undertones in each sibling relationship in blocking alone. The lighting design is generally subtle and understated throughout, a soft household lighting dim changing gently to suit moods in each scene.
Worth is billed as a dark family comedy drama about family loss and sibling rivalry. It’s so much more than that. It explores gender roles and family expectations across both British and Chinese culture, inheritance conflict, bitterness, jealousy – and is fundamentally about the emotion we all feel toward our family, be it love, hatred, resentment, or otherwise. It also sensitively tackles head-on some heavy topics, like child abuse, sexual abuse, and drug misuse – some of which may be difficult to watch onstage but never feels self-indulgent or inappropriate. A frankly brutal ending will leave its audience wondering about their own lived experiences, and asking: in money, people, resentment, or freedom – where do you put your worth?
Worth plays at Arcola Theatre until 29 April 2023. For more information and to purchase tickets visit: https://www.arcolatheatre.com/whats-on/worth/
Photos by Ikin Yum