People, secrets, life, the office: Si Rawlinson’s Saving Face

Studio Theatre, Curve, Leicester
May 26, 2023

Offices. On the surface, not generally the most exciting of places. But the people in them. That’s different. Because we all have things that, we would prefer to stay hidden, for whatever reason.

Produced by Kakilang (formerly Chinese Arts Now), an organisation that produces and presents art by Southeast and East Asian voices, and created by Si Rawlinson, born in Hong Kong of British and Chinese heritage, Saving Face blends dance, text and physical theatre into a show about four work colleagues. As Rawlinson and his brilliant three co-performers tell their story, mixing hip hop and contemporary dance with dialogue and humour, it’s a quite brilliant hour of theatre.

Secrets rarely stay buried for ever, especially in a close environment such as an office, and it’s not long before we discover, each of the four is battling in their own personal way with invisible illness or other private struggle as they try to do their job.

Saving Face by Si Rawlinson and Kakilang
Photo Lidia Crisafulli

The context for the work is the notion of ‘saving face’ traditionally found in South East and East Asian cultures, where admitting to perceived weakness or mistakes is shameful, both personally and professionally. Saving Face has universal resonance, however. It’s about being human. It’s about normal people with normal, if hidden, problems.

Perhaps that’s why it all feels so very relatable. They are characters we all recognise. Maybe we even see part of ourselves. All four performers are outstanding. Fabulous dancers but great actors too. They draw you in. You become invested in them and their relationships. They make you feel for them. You find yourself caring about what happens.

Lisa Chearles as Jackie in Saving Face
Photo Lidia Crisafulli

The office manager, Lesley (Yukiko Masui) struggles with the challenges of the job. One suspects she’s demanding anyway, although there is a surprise melting at one point, but equally that pressure from above is not helping any. Drew (Jamaal O’Driscoll) has a strained relationship with his father, who is always calling his son’s mobile. It’s call tone, Frank Sinatra singing ‘That’s Life,’ which annoys all, is incredibly apposite. The livewire Jackie (Lisa Chearles) has OCD, which she tries desperately hard to hide from her colleagues. At one point, she dances with a picture of her boyfriend who is off to Vancouver. “It’s only six months. Not really a long time,” she says trying desperately to convince herself.

And then there’s Sam (Rawlinson, himself), in many ways the most interesting of the four. Sometimes he works well, sometimes he just seems world-weary. He’s laid back, yet his well-worn face and demeanour suggest fragility; that there is something behind it all. It’s a while before we find out that ‘something’ is an auto-immune condition that needs regular treatment, just like Rawlinson in real life.

Yukiko Masui (Lesley) and Si Rawlinson (Sam) in Saving Face
Photo Lidia Crisafulli

All four cannot escape the job, the office, but they cannot escape their problems and secrets either. And the stress levels are rising. They are battling with a deadline. The pressure is on to get a presentation finished, Just to add to the stress, it seems its success or not might have a bearing on a review of the department, which all are reading as a euphemism for job cuts.

Saving Face does have quite a lot of spoken word, with quite a lot of amusing or telling asides, but it’s punctuated frequently often exciting, athletic, pure movement. Transitions are invariably seamless.

More often that not, Christine Ting-Huan Urquhart’s brilliant set of wheeled desks, chairs and partitions becomes part of the choreography. There are times when it feels like an oppressive, inescapable fifth character. In one scene, it closes in on Lesley, reflecting the increasing pressure she’s under. At other times the furniture glides around the stage as the cast dance with and around them. But always, always, there. A very slick dance for all four to Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five,’ which depicts perfectly the busyness of the office, is especially impressive.

(l-r, back) Yukiko Masui, Lisa Chearles and Jamaal O’Driscoll,
with (front) Si Rawlinson in Saving Face
Photo Lidia Crisafulli

Elsewhere, storage boxes are thrown (there are a lot of boxes!) and paper flies. Everyone gets their own moment in the spotlight. Chearles dances a remarkably agile and physical solo that’s also full of feeling to ‘I Put A Spell on You’ as desks shift around her. In a moment when time seems to stop, O’Driscoll gives us a hip hop solo to ‘That’s Life’ that is full of great floorwork. And there’s an unexpected, momentarily tender duet for Rawlinson and Masui. Feelings soon evaporate when the reality of that work deadline raises its head again, though.

Saving Face is relevant, profound, thought-provoking. But it also has humour and a lot of fabulous dance. So cleverly constructed is it, that even five minutes before its conclusion, I had no idea how it would end. Rawlinson and the cast open so many possibilities. They show so many doors. But which one do they step through? To find out, you will have to go see it for yourself.

Saving Face can next be seen at The Place, London on June 23 & 24, 2023.