Review: The World of Extreme Happiness

As Daisy Bartlett reviews yet another play about China, what makes this one so special?


Although The Shed’s programme had already been finalised without The World of Extreme Happiness, when the artistic director was sent a copy of this script they made a space for it, as they felt it was a story that needs to be told. Francis Ya-Chu Cowhig’s exceptional writing opens a door to a world that has for so long been voiceless.

The Shed is like the National Theatre’s trendy younger brother, complete with a bar and local ales that wouldn’t look out of place in East London! The theatre is a fantastic setting for the play – it’s small and slightly cramped, with the audience having to walk across the stage as they arrive – but at the same time representative of the large, rapidly growing cities of China, where people practically live on top of each other. The space creates a relationship with the audience before they’ve even taken their seats.

Following on from Chimerica, The World of Extreme Happiness represents a new era of theatre taking an interest in China, but this play is somewhat of a rarity. The play doesn’t revolve around a Western protagonist, instead focussing on the journey of Sunny (Katie Leung) from country to city life, and as the title suggests, her quest for happiness and fulfilment. Somewhat shockingly, the play opens with Sunny’s birth and subsequent disposal into a slops bucket as she isn’t the boy her parents had longed for, but this only served to ensnare the audience for the next two hours.

Although at points I felt the storyline was slightly exaggerated, as the desire of the characters to improve themselves and their social situation was so extreme, I later learnt from the director (Michael Longhurst) that 20% of all books sold in China are self-help books and that China has one of the world’s highest suicide rates, particularly amongst the factory workers that the play follows closely. On more than one occasion exactly the aspects I found ludicrous were the ones based on real stories, making the play even more shocking.

The final scene was incredibly powerful, and looking around the audience in the closing moments, everyone was captivated by Leung’s performance. However, for me, Vera Chok as the desperate self-improver Ming-Ming stole the show, as she managed to effortlessly entwine the slightly comedic yet ultimately tragic traits of her character.

This hipster’s only around temporarily whilst the Cottesloe’s closed for refurbishment so make sure you check it out before it leaves, and with all tickets priced from £5 to £25, there’s no excuse not to!

The World of Extreme Happiness runs until 26 October, and The Shed’s around until early 2014. Check out the rest of the program here.