It takes a brave author to write an autobiographical play which places himself as the central character and which goes on to expose and satirise the industry within which he strives to remain employed. In doing just that, David Henry Hwang won himself an Obie award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer prize for Yellow Face in 2008. No surprise though, as his best known multi-award winning Broadway debut work, M.Butterfly, which was also made into a film, placed him firmly on the map of bright and significant East Asian writers.

Hwang, or DHH as the author is known, led a series of protests in the 1990s when British actor Jonathan Pryce was cast in the role of an Asian in Miss Saigon. This race-blind casting still causes concern in some circles, particularly in the light of the recent decision by the RSC to cast only three East Asian actors in minor roles in The Orphan of Zhao, a play described as the Chinese Hamlet. Although Yellow Face might initially seem more like a dramatic documentary, given its narrative structure and frequent played-out flashbacks, it is in fact a cleverly constructed piece of writing with pseudo-factual events which highlight, among other things, the difficulties faced when casting productions with ethnic roles.   

In this work the issue is compounded when, whilst casting his new play Face Value, DHH accidentally casts a Caucasian actor "Marcus G. Dahlman" as the lead and in order to save face, creates a back story that he is, in fact, a Siberian Jew. But there is no option but to find a way of sacking him, and so in a comedic twist, "Marcus G", the stage name suggested to him by DHH, goes on to much success playing to type, including the King of Siam in the musical The King And I

American actor Kevin Shen, in his professional stage debut, gives a convincing and solid performance as DHH – battling his own demons, in addition to the casting fiasco and his banking father, HYH (played with great nonchalant humour by David Yip) is indicted for fraud. The part of Marcus is filled by Ben Starr, also making his professional stage debut, in a thoroughly compelling tour-de-force as the hot-shot whose new persona has transformed him into something of a community activist.   

When DHH's world comes crashing down around him, he is confronted by aggressive journalist "Name withheld on advice of counsel" who seeks merely to get the truth, but ends up becoming the inspiration for the work we're watching. Christy Meyer is intensely focused as the virtual cross-examiner, together with Shen providing the most brilliant exchanges and reversal of intention. Rounding it off, in a seemingly self-indulgent manner, the author is challenged by his own creation towards the end – which nicely takes us full circle to the start of the piece.

In Lily Arnold's simplistic but purposeful grey set which is in the round, or literally in the square, with audience seating on all four sides, the cast are fully exposed. Initially, the fast-paced nature of the exchanges with multiple characters around the auditorium can be disconcerting, but it certainly gives the neck muscles a good work out! However, Joshua Carr's sympathetic lighting changes pinpoint the action and director Alex Sims has ensured the fluidity of movement fits perfectly with the nature of the scenes. He's also drilled a sterling cast – four of whom play well over forty characters between them, all with distinct personalities. A superb team effort in a superb new venue.

Yellow Face, at Park TheatreJoe Crystal reviews Yellow Face at the Park Theatre.4