Happy Valley: Great destination, but getting there involves a major detour

publicity photo for Happy Valley

Derek Chan in Happy Valley (Photo by Pedro Augusto Meza)

I won’t give away the confession in Derek Chan’s Happy Valley, but it’s the best part of the script.

In this interdisciplinary solo, Chan sings and recites poetry — often in Cantonese with English surtitles. We also get Cantonese surtitles.

Chan grew up in Hong Kong when it was still a British colony and he refers to the British handover of the territory to China in 1997 as The Apocalypse. In various artistic forms, he tells us that he lost the beloved site of his childhood: he can never go home again and he is both furious and sorrowful. He rails against the feckless British colonizers and the social, political, and criminal abuses of the current Communist overlords. Happy Valley is an agonized expression of dislocation. The song “Swallow” begins, “How much shit can a motherfucker swallow/Before they have to spit?”

Formally, there are some intriguing things going on. The song styles range from thrash punk to piano-bar. The poetry mixes with monologues, some of which are delivered by a cranky old character called Uncle Chan. Andie Lloyd’s video design isn’t the crispest, but I appreciate how the English surtitles for Cantonese dialogue sometimes spill off the projection surfaces and accumulate so rapidly they’re hard to follow, just like real-life translated conversations.

But, because the play’s politics and their related emotional content aren’t, for the most part, fleshed out in relationships or inhabited by developed characters, the content of Happy Valley often stays stubbornly, elusively abstract. I couldn’t find a way to access Happy Valley until several minutes into its running time when Chan told us a story about hanging out as a teenager with a high-school buddy, who was also a volleyball teammate. At the end of their schoolyear, they knew they would be going different directions. Chan, who had good marks, would study abroad. His friend would stay in Hong Kong. As they lay on the concrete of their school’s outdoor volleyball court, the heat from the day warmed their backs Chan tells us — and, in this moment in Happy Valley, loss becomes specific and sensual.

But, as Chan continued to lean into his political fury — with few such moments to ground it, and without finding an objective or other core issue, and, as I became more and more aware that a lot of what he’s talking about took place a long time ago, I began to wonder if there wasn’t some kind of emotional substitution going on, if the takeover of Hong Kong wasn’t a stand-in for something more personal.

And, to a significant degree, it is. That’s where the confession comes in.

In a way, this revelation, when it comes, is cool: it gave me the sense that I was watching an artist actively exploring his own experience and finding something that surprised even him.

But I was also disappointed that Happy Valley didn’t develop the underlying core issue more fully. If I’d had a deeper sense of Chan’s relationship to one of the other characters, the play’s revelation would have hit me with more force.

So it’s kind of a bind. Happy Valley’s reward is its turn into honesty. But, by the time it gets there, it has spent so long in elaborate avoidance that the power of that honesty is blunted.

HAPPY VALLEY Written and performed by Derek Chan. Directed by Anjela Magpantay. A rice & beans theatre production presented by the Firehall Arts Centre. On Saturday, May 27. Running at the Firehall until June 4. Info and tickets

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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